A team of researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada have developed a treatment for lymphedema that’s smaller, lighter, and cheaper than many existing treatments. It’s a prototype of a soft robotic sleeve that weighs less than an iPhone 13, and costs less to make than many similar medical-grade compression sleeves on the market today. The cost differential is due in large part to a new design that swaps out eight bulky valves that consume considerable amounts of energy for two miniature valves that are powered by a 3.7-volt lithium-ion battery. 

While primary lymphedema is congenital and quite rare — affecting only about 1 in 100,000 people in the United States — secondary lymphedema often results from a primary health issue. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, about 1 in 1,000 Americans are affected by secondary lymphedema. Many of these sufferers develop their secondary lymphedema after treatment for breast cancer, which carries a significant probability of lymph node damage or the need for lymph node removal during surgery.

These lymph node issues cause proteins and fluids to collect in the patient’s arm. To combat this, compression sleeves — tube-shaped elastic devices that go around the arm — apply pressure to help keep lymph (fluid with white blood cells) flowing through the lymphatic system. Using soft robotic elements to apply this pressure, along with a microfluidic-chip controller, the prototype sleeve is able to aid this flow of fluids without the need for an electric-powered stationary pump that’s common to current compression sleeves.

Carolyn Ren, one of the sleeve’s developers, comments on the increased portability, saying, “My definition of wearable is you can wear it and do whatever you want, and not be plugged into a wall…. Bringing in the microfluidics field, we wanted to make the system battery-powered but without compromising the performance.” The technology Ren speaks of may not be limited to the treatment of lymphedema; swelling that’s common in the legs of people who wear prosthetics may also benefit from a cord-free compression sleeve.