Kathy Bates

Kathy Bates — Getty Images

If you think Kathy Bates was terrifying as Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s Misery, it’s nothing compared to what the actress has faced in real life. She recently appeared on Larry King Now to talk about her ordeal, and the role the Weizmann Institute of Science plays in creating a better future.

“Shortly after I had a double mastectomy, I got lymphedema in my arms,” Bates said. “I was devastated. I knew going in what it was, and I was terrified.”

The lymphatic system is constantly at work in our bodies, providing cells with nutrients and a way to get rid of waste. When cancer metastasizes, or spreads to other parts of the body from the original tumor, it is because cancer cells get trapped in lymph nodes, leading to secondary tumors. When lymph nodes are removed during surgery, fluids can become blocked, causing limbs to swell. This started as a heaviness in Bates’ arm, which became sore and painful. It was then that she asked herself the very question that so many are forced to wonder, which motivated Susan Schulz and me to support Weizmann’s cancer research.

“So what do I do now? How am I going to live with something I was so afraid of? Something that makes me so angry and depressed? Something that is affecting the quality of my life—and will for the rest of my life.”

Bates’ treatment includes a pneumatic pump and a hot, uncomfortable compression sleeve. She takes caution to avoid getting cuts that might develop into infections. Her doctor introduced her to the Lymphatic Education & Research Network (LE&RN), and she learned that up to 10 million Americans suffer from lymphedema. Bates took her negative feelings toward lymphedema and became an ambassador for LE&RN, striving to educate the public about a chronic disease that many people have never heard about.

Dr. Karina Yaniv's Research Group

Dr. Yaniv’s research group.Sitting from the right: Lihee Asaf, Dr. Karina Yaniv, Tal Lupo, and Julian Nicenboim. Standing: Dr. Yogev Sela.

“In addition to raising awareness,” Bates said, “we want to raise money for research. Recently, through LE&RN’s support, Dr. Karina Yaniv and her colleagues at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel revealed how the lymphatic system develops in the embryo. And for the first time they managed to grow lymphatic cells in the lab!”

This got my attention. I discovered that Weizmann is using zebrafish embryos with fluorescent “glow in the dark” blood vessels to help solve the mystery of the origin of the lymphatic system. I’ve learned that Weizmann’s approach to curiosity always helps the organization stay ahead of the curve and begin to see through some of the unknowns, like the origins of the lymphatic system, which scientists have been debating for over a century.

This issue has now been resolved by Dr. Karina Yaniv of the Weizmann Institute of Science’s Department of Biological Regulation. In a study reported in Nature, she and her team revealed how the lymphatic system develops in the embryo and – in a world’s first – managed to grow lymphatic cells in the lab.

In the initial stages of the research project, Dr. Yaniv’s team members Julian Nicenboim and Dr. Guy Malkinson obtained images of developing zebrafish embryos, whose transparent bodies make it possible to document embryonic development in real time over several days. They then watched the images backwards.

“We started out by imaging zebrafish, and ended up finding a factor that makes it possible to create lymphatic cells,” says Dr. Yaniv. “That’s the beauty of research in developmental biology: The embryo holds the answers, and all we have to do is watch and learn.”

Aside from the feat of answering the longstanding question of how the lymph system arises, understanding how it forms and develops can provide important insights into disease, from the metastasis of cancer to the abnormal accumulation of lymph fluids, particularly in the wake of surgery to remove cancerous tumors. Weizmann is in a race against time to solve mysteries that impact real people, like Kathy Bates, and it is only with our support that this exciting research can move forward quickly enough to win.