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A Pole among the most outstanding researchers of the lymphatic system

07.12.2005 Health
For years it was believed that the lymphatic system in the human organism served only to pass water and proteins from the tissues into the blood. Prof. Waldemar Olszewski of the Institute of Experimental and Clinical Medicine of the Polish Academy of Science has proved that its function is far more important. Lastly, the professor received an honorary doctorate from the University of Genoa – a world center of research into the lymphatic system since the 18th century - for his contribution to the development of vascular surgery, including lymphatic vessels.

The Pole proved that the function of the lymphatic system includes the control of the internal integrity of our tissues and provides constant defense against infection. Without the lymphatic system we would not be able to live – the tissues would drown in the fluid protein tissue, bacteria and viruses would quickly kill us, there would be no regeneration of tissues.

The results of his research, over forty years, into the lymphatic system, are utilized the world over, to a large degree to preserve the lives and health of people living in tropical countries. Prof. Olszewski is pleased that the initiative to award the honorary doctorate came spontaneously from the University of Genoa.

"Polish universities award honorary doctorates to many western scholars, but these are rarely reciprocated. In this instance, the University of Genoa had no contacts with Poland and the main motive was my contribution to pathophysiology and vascular surgery" - he said.


Currently, prof. Olszewski is researching into lymphatic cells and proteins with scientists from the National Health Institute in Bethseda, USA, and the Indian National Academy of Science in Delhi. "We want to look at the problem of transfer of information concerning bacterial, viral and mycological infection".

The most important challenge for researchers into the lymphatic system is to establish what is going on between the cell tissues. That is particularly important in connection with the development of nanomedicine.

"Thanks to such research in future we will not have to take blood to check the protein levels in man " – he explains. "It will be sufficient, with the help of a micro-pipette for example, to get into the inter-cellular space from which we can draw a drop of tissue fluid and lymph. In that small drop we might be able to see 1500 proteins which participate in the pathological processes of the organism. "


The lymphatic system is an open system of vessels and conductors transporting one of the body fluids – the lymph. It is connected to the circulation system which brings blood to the tissues.

"Everything in the tissue soaks through the wall of the capillary vessels between the cell of a given tissue and forms tissue fluid. This fluid, upon flowing into the lymph vessels which are in every tissue, is called lymph" – explains prof. Olszewski. The system of lymphatic vessels which is best developed in the skin, lungs and intestine – that is the tissues exposed most to direct contact with the environment.

"Every pathology concerning one of the system's elements causes changes (sickness) in the tissue or organ" - stresses prof. Olszewski. When the organism is attacked from outside, by bacteria and viruses, or from within by tumors, the lymphatic system springs into action. Its reaction is the immediate transportation via lymphatic vessels of bacteria and viruses to the lymph glands where they are eliminated. The symptom of such struggle in the organism is the inflammatory process.

"It is worse with tumors which do not provoke a clear response of the lymphatic system" - says the professor. "Thus the lymphatic system protects us primarily from what comes into our tissues and is not genetically one's own” – he adds.


My fascination with the lymphatic system began in 1962 - recalls prof. Olszewski. After four years of studying it, he designed and produced the world's first lymph-vein combination in lymphatic pools. His work spelt progress in medicine and was the precursor of lymphatic system micro-surgery. The arrest of tissue and lymph fluid in the lymphatic system is deadly for that system and initiates its destruction. The effect is lymphatic swelling.

According to the World Health Organization, there are 300 million people affected by it, mainly in Asia, Africa and South America. Professor Olszewski's discovery has been used in over 100,000 operations. In the 1980s, he discovered a specific property of the lymphatic vessels in man – rhythmic spasms. Fragments of these vessels, which contain one-way valves, contract analogously with the heart's contractions whose effect is the constant outflow of excessive tissue and lymph fluid from the tissues to the blood.

"Without this transport function, dependent on the contraction of lymphatic vessels, we would not be able to live. All the tissues would succumb to swelling followed by necrosis" – he explains


The function of lymphatic system can be assisted for years by steady doses of antibiotics. Professor Olszewski has worked out a method using 'protracted' doses of penicillin of preventing recurrence of inflammation of the skin, lymphatic vessels and lymph glands in tropical countries. His method has been adopted by WHO experts.

Currently, by way of preventative remedy, it is administered to over ten million people in the world. With the residents of tropical countries in mind, two years ago he worked out a method of plastic surgery for limbs in cases of great lymphatic swellings – that is, elephantiasis.

Elephantiasis is a very extreme form of swelling of the limbs due to obstructed outflow of lymph fluid. It comes as a result of blockage of the glands and a massive congestion of the lymph glands or smaller lymphatic vessels.

* * *

Waldemar Olszewski graduated from the Academy of Medicine in Warsaw. He became a professor in 1985. He has been seconded to the Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London, the Harvard Medical School - Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, the Norwegian Radium Hospital in Oslo, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Polish Society of Experimental and Clinical Immunology, the Society of Polish Surgeons, the International Society of Micro-surgery, the European Society of Lymphology, the Argentinean Society of Angiology, the American Society of Lymphology, and the Polish-Japanese Surgical Society.

Awards and prizes: International Society of Lymphology (1973), Purkinye Society (1979), PAN (1981, 1985) and the Polish Society of Transplantology (1998).

Joanna Poros, trans. AJB, ed. AJFB


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