Alumni Update Issue 12

Unlocking the mysteries of the lymphatic vascular system to help cure disease

Dr Kelly Betterman, Research Associate, Centre for Cancer Biology

L to R: Lymphatic Development Lab (L-R): Genevieve Secker, Melinda Tea, Drew Sutton, Jan Kazenwadel, Kelly Betterman, Natasha Harvey.

UniSA alumna Dr Kelly Betterman and her colleagues at the Lymphatic Development Lab, headed by Associate Professor Natasha Harvey at the Centre for Cancer Biology - an alliance between the University of South Australia and SA Pathology - are conducting critical research into how lymphatic vessels grow and remodel in the body during embryonic development and in disease states, to ultimately understand how to stop certain cancers from spreading or how to regrow new lymphatic vessels in cases of vascular damage.

Their research is currently thriving, with the Lymphatic Development team recently uncovering a key gene involved in regulating the growth and development of the lymphatic system - GATA2. This discovery may one day help in finding a cure for the related condition, lymphedema.

Kelly started her venture into cancer research when she completed a Bachelor of Laboratory Medicine with Honours at UniSA and received the Martin Hansen Award, Terumo Prize and the Australasian Association of Clinical Biochemists Prize.

She began working as a Research Assistant for Natasha Harvey. Natasha encouraged her to pursue a PhD in lymphatic vascular and mammary gland development. She completed her PhD in 2011 and is continuing to work with Natasha at the Centre for Cancer Biology.

Lymphatic vessels

The lymphatic system is a component of the cardiovascular system that primarily returns fluid and protein back to the bloodstream. It consists of a network of vessels which transport lymph - a fluid containing protein and white blood cells - throughout the body. Abnormalities in the growth, development and function of lymphatic vessels are associated with human disorders, including vascular malformations, lymphedema, inflammatory diseases and cancer.

By understanding how lymphatic vessels are built, Kelly and her colleagues will identify new opportunities to modulate this process and thereby provide more effective treatments for patients suffering from lymphatic vascular diseases, such as lymphedema, and potentially to stop cancer cells from spreading throughout the body via the lymphatic vessels.

Kelly says “if we can work out how to stop cancer cells spreading by the lymphatic vessels, then we may be able to prevent the spread of certain cancers including melanoma, breast and prostate cancers.”


Through their research into lymphatic vessels, Kelly and her team are also studying the associated condition; lymphedema. Lymphedema affects more than 140 million people worldwide and is a debilitating condition with symptoms including localised fluid retention and tissue swelling. It is either caused by serious damage or injury to the lymphatic system, or by genetic mutations that affect the lymphatic vasculature. For example, modern treatments for breast cancer which include the removal of lymph nodes or damage through radiation therapy can cause lymphedema. Patients are required to wear compression garments, receive massage or undergo manual draining for relief.

Kelly and her colleagues at the Centre for Cancer Biology recently made a fundamental breakthrough in lymphedema research by uncovering an important role for the GATA2 gene in lymphatic vessels. GATA2 is a molecule that binds to DNA to switch genes off or on, and is vital to building the vessels in the lymphatic system. Kelly and her team are continuing this line of research into additional genes that have been identified to play a role in lymphatic vessels.

“Part of our research is also working out how to regrow lymphatic vessels. If we can achieve this, then we may find a cure for lymphedema, which will provide significant relief for those patients.”

You can learn more about their discovery via the UniSA Media Centre.

How the team are achieving this

In order to understand the complex lymphatic vessel system, Kelly and her colleagues employ a wide range of techniques including high resolution confocal microscopy to visualise the lymphatic network.

“We do a lot of imaging of lymphatic vessels. Without the high resolution confocal microscope many of the findings wouldn’t have been possible," says Kelly.

“Advances in technology have significantly helped our team uncover the findings we have discovered so far. In the eight years I have been working here, we have been able to see things that we were unable to see before with less optimal microscopes.

“However, as technology improves we constantly need to update our equipment so that we can continue the high level of research and don’t get left behind on the world stage.”

How you can help:

Even though Kelly and her team have already uncovered vital findings, there is still a lot of information to discover and understand. To donate to this research and help Kelly and her team reveal further insights into the lymphatic system please visit: Support Cancer Research

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