Life-altering Lymphedema Research Underway Thanks to Center for Computational and Integrative Biology Doctoral Student

Catherine Rosenberg, Eric Chang

By Jeanne Leong

Patients usually look to their doctors for answers, but Rutgers University–Camden doctoral student Catherine Rosenberg is a patient whose work with her physician is creating a solution for a medical issue that could help change her life and the lives of other people with lymphedema.

Rosenberg is a survivor of a rare soft tissue cancer that she was diagnosed with as a child.  Her cancer treatments led to lymphedema, a chronic medical condition that occurs when the lymphatic system can’t properly drain fluids back into the bloodstream. Rosenberg has suffered for most of her life with a swollen left leg, which sometimes became one-third larger than her right leg. The ailment has caused infections, as well as pain in standing and walking.

Using her background in mathematics and computer science, Rosenberg, a student in the Ph.D. program in computational and integrative biology at Rutgers University–Camden, entered the CCIB program in January 2016 and is working on her dissertation topic to explore limb volume calculation.

Since entering the doctoral program offered through the Rutgers University–Camden Center for Computational and Integrative Biology, Rosenberg has worked closely with advisor Desmond Lun, a professor of computer science at Rutgers–Camden whose research addresses systems biology.

Typically, Ph.D. students will work on projects that are underway in the lab, says Lun, but Rosenberg suggested her own project for her doctoral dissertation.

Lun says, “I became convinced that she was self-motivated and qualified to be successful in a project that was more self-directed and I told her to just go for it.”

Rosenberg began her research pathway by collaborating with her doctor, Eric Chang, of Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, to develop a standardized monitoring method of measuring the volume of fluid that builds up in the limbs of lymphedema patients. The method is used to help doctors diagnose, treat and monitor the condition.

Currently, each hospital uses a different process to measure fluid volume in patients’ limbs, so it’s difficult for medical professionals to track a patient’s disease.

“Some places measure every 10 centimeters and some places will measure every four, “says Rosenberg. “In looking at pediatrics, some people will measure every four centimeters; some are every two. If the measurements aren’t being done the same way using the same landmarks, your calculations are going to come up off and you can’t compare one to the other because you’re comparing apples to oranges.”

When a patient moves from one hospital or doctor to another, it becomes even more complicated because the doctor needs to take new measurements for a baseline from their method of measurement.

Rosenberg’s and Chang’s limb volume calculation monitoring method now has a U. S. patent pending status, and since July, Fox Chase Cancer Center has been using the method on their lymphedema patients.

Rosenberg and Chang began working together in May of 2015, after Chang performed vascularized lymph node transfer surgery on Rosenberg. She mentioned to him that the formula used to calculate fluid volume of her leg was incorrect.

“I knew the problem the first week in April because that’s when I went for my pre-surgery measurements,” says Rosenberg.  “I didn’t tell him until after he did my surgery because my surgery was 14-and-a-half hours long and he was transplanting lymph nodes from one part of the body to another and I didn’t want him to make a mistake as he was thinking about what I told him, so I chose to tell him afterwards.”

Rosenberg and Chang speak to Rutgers-Camden students Sept. 13, 2016 about their lymphedema research

At first, Chang didn’t believe Rosenberg, but the former Little Egg Harbor elementary special education  teacher, who has a master’s degree in computational science from Stockton University, proved to him that the measurements were inaccurate, and they began working together to find a more accurate limb volume calculation method.

“Working with Catherine has been great because she offers both a mathematical and a personal patient perspective about lymphedema,” says Chang, a 2002 graduate of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School joint BA/MD program at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

For Rosenberg, the chance to make an impact is rewarding.  It’s also a chance to fulfill a dream to work in medicine.

“I’ve always wanted to work in the medical field but because of the swelling in my leg, I was not able to. I can’t stand on my feet for a long time. So, I didn’t go medical school or physical therapy school like I wanted to, but once I figured this out, it let me do what I wanted to do, just in a little bit different way.”

The computational and integrative biology program at Rutgers University–Camden emphasizes the development of mathematical models for biological systems, the application of the models to data from laboratory and field investigations, the adjustment of the model based on its fit to and predictive value for experimental results, and the subsequent modification of the experimental design based on the predictions of the model.

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