Review| Volume 151, P233-244, July 2021

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A meta-analysis of the efficacy of vascularised lymph node transfer in reducing limb volume and cellulitis episodes in patients with cancer treatment-related lymphoedema


      • Lymphoedema is a disabling complication that burdens cancer survivorship.
      • Vascularised lymph node transfer (VLNT) reconstructs lymphatic return.
      • Meta-analysis showed VLNT can reduce limb volume and cellulitis episodes.
      • Extra-abdominal donor sites more effectively reduced limb volumes than intra-abdominal donor sites.
      • Standardised outcome reporting and randomised trials are recommended.



      Lymphoedema after cancer treatment is a chronic and disabling complication that presents a significant health care burden during survivorship with limited treatment options. Vascularised lymph node transfer (VLNT) can reconstruct lymphatic flow to reduce limb volumes, but limited higher-order evidence exists to support its effectiveness.


      The aim of the study was to systematically review and meta-analyse the effectiveness of VLNT in reducing upper limb (UL) or lower limb (LL) volume and cellulitis episodes in patients with cancer treatment–related lymphoedema (CTRL).


      PubMed, Medline (Ovid) and Embase databases were searched between January 1974 and December 2019. Full-length articles where VLNT was the sole therapeutic procedure for CTRL, reporting volumetric limb, frequency of infection episodes and/or lymphoedema-specific quality-of-life data, were included in a random-effects meta-analysis of circumferential reduction rate (CRR). Methodological quality was assessed using STROBE/CONSORT, and a novel, lymphoedema-specific scoring tool was used to assess lymphoedema-specific methodological reporting. Sensitivity analyses on the site of VLNT harvest and recipient location were performed.


      Thirty-one studies (581 patients) were eligible for inclusion. VLNT led to significant limb volume reductions in UL (above elbow pooled CRRs [CRRP] = 42.7% [95% confidence interval (CI): 36.5–48.8]; below elbow CRRP = 34.1% [95% CI: 33.0–35.1]) and LL (above knee CRRP = 46.8% [95% CI: 43.2–50.4]; below knee CRRP = 54.6% [95% CI: 39.0–70.2]) CTRL. VLNT flaps from extra-abdominal donor sites were associated with greater volume reductions (CRRP = 49.5% [95% CI: 46.5–52.5]) than those from intra-abdominal donor sites (CRRP = 39.6% [95% CI: 37.2–42.0]) and synchronous autologous breast reconstruction/VLNT flaps (CRRP = 32.7% [95% CI: 11.1–54.4]) (p < 0.05). VLNT was also found to reduce the mean number of cellulitis episodes by 2.1 episodes per year (95% CI: −2.7– −1.4) and increased lymphoedema-specific quality-of-life scores (mean difference in Lymphoedema-Specific Quality of Life (LYMQOL) “overall domain” = +4.26).


      VLNT is effective in reducing excess limb volume and cellulitis episodes in both UL and LL lymphoedema after cancer treatment. However, significant heterogeneity exists in outcome reporting, and standardisation of reporting processes is recommended.


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