Gene discovery points to lymphatic disease and cancer therapy

19 May 2014

Scientists from The University of Queensland (UQ) have unravelled the workings of a gene that could be used to treat lymphatic diseases or stop the spread of cancer.

Related coverage: Watch 7 News Brisbane's story on this discovery

Dr Ben Hogan, from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience, led a team that discovered how the gene ccbe1 works to encourage lymphatic vessels to form.

“Lymphatic vessels carry lymph fluid around the body, transporting important substances like white blood cells, dietary fats and filtering excess fluid from our tissues back into our blood stream,” Dr Hogan said.

“Cancer cells can spread through the body by establishing their own system of lymphatic vessels, while in lymphatic diseases such as Hennekem syndrome and Milroy’s Disease, the lymphatic vessels don’t form properly and can’t drain all the excess lymph in tissues, leading to an accumulation of fluid and swelling.”

“We discovered that the gene ccbe1 acts essentially as a power switch by activating an important signalling pathway called vegfc/vegfr3., which causes new lymphatic vessels to grow.

“People born without ccbe1 suffer from Hennekam syndrome and don’t form a functioning lymphatic vessel network.”

The discovery was made using zebrafish, tiny transparent fish whose lymphatic system closely resembles that of humans.

The researchers examined live zebrafish under microscopes to study the formation of lymphatic vessels in fish with normal and mutated copies of ccbe1.

Dr Hogan said ccbe1’s crucial role in lymphatic vessel development meant it could be a target for treatments for lymphatic diseases and cancer.

““Around one-third of inherited lymphatic diseases are caused by mutations in the vegfc signalling pathway,” Dr Hogan said.

“Our findings suggest you could treat different forms of lymphatic diseases by using ccbe1 or vegfc to switch on signalling and to form new lymphatic vessels.

“We now want to investigate if, in the case of cancer, a treatment that blocks ccbe1 could stop new tumour lymphatic vessels from forming and prevent the spread of cancer cells.”

Dr Hogan said any new treatments arising from this discovery were still several years away, as more research is needed to develop such a treatment suitable for human clinical trials.

The discovery was published in the journal Development and involved teams located at UQ, the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne and the Hubrecht Institute in the Netherlands.

Dr Hogan’s research was supported by funding organisations including the Australian Cancer Research Foundation, the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Research Council.

To make a tax-deductible donation to IMB lymphatic disease and cancer research, visit or call +61 (07) 3346 2134.

To discuss commercial opportunities associated with this research, contact Dr Mark Ashton on or +61 (07) 3346 2186.

The Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) is a research institute of The University of Queensland that aims to improve quality of life by advancing medical genomics, drug discovery and biotechnology.


Media contact: IMB Communications Manager Bronwyn Adams, 0418 575 247, 07 3346 2134,