Posted: 31st January 2019
World Cancer Day on the 4th of February marks the launch of a 3-year campaign "I am and I will". The theme is a call-to-action urging for personal commitment and represents the power of individual action taken now to impact the future. Whoever you are, you have the power to reduce the impact of cancer for yourself, the people you love and for the world. It’s time to make a personal commitment.
At SVI, we have many researchers who dedicate their lives to reduce the impact of cancer. One such scientist is Dr Ramin Shayan - a clinician-researcher who spends his research time trying to do himself out of a job. His work in SVI’s O’Brien Institute Department is focused on understanding the molecular mechanisms of a condition known as lymphoedema – an increasingly common consequence of breast cancer treatment. He is also a highly sought-after plastic surgeon who has developed innovative surgical solutions for people with the condition.
“Happily, a growing number of cancer patients have had their life spared thanks to new therapies. But because of this there is also a growing cohort of people who suffer debilitating side-effects resulting from their treatment,” says Ramin. Lymphoedema occurs when removal of lymph nodes or damage to the lymphatics system during treatment for cancer – mainly breast cancer or melanoma – causes lymph fluid to build up under the skin. The condition can be debilitating, with an affected arm in a very bad case weighing up to 6 kilos more than an unaffected arm.
“Our approach to treating the cancer is so sophisticated, it is hard to imagine that these people often felt that they couldn’t get anyone to acknowledge the consequences of that treatment as a serious problem. These people were ‘medical orphans’ – there was no-one who was dedicated to understanding what caused lymphoedema, much less finding a way to treat it,” says Ramin.
Ramin’s list of patients has grown steadily since 2013 when he started performing complex surgery on these patients – painstakingly repairing damaged vessels in surgical sessions that can take up to 6 hours. “Surgery allows me to see the problem at a microscopic level, but it is limited by the size and type of surgical instruments available, by my manual dexterity and also by the resolution of our imaging. Molecular biology allows us to understand at a deeper level – at a cellular level – what is going wrong and will hopefully allow us to develop new ways to stop the problem from occurring in the first place.” He says that he would happily forego his surgical work on these patients if he could develop a therapy to solve the problem before it became so serious that surgery was required.