• lymphoedema;
  • generalized lymphatic dysplasia;
  • phenotyping;
  • FOXC2;
  • GATA2;
  • GJC2;
  • KIF11;
  • VEGFC;


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Classification of primary lymphatic dysplasia
  4. Use of the classification pathway
  5. Conclusion
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. References

Historically, primary lymphoedema was classified into just three categories depending on the age of onset of swelling; congenital, praecox and tarda. Developments in clinical phenotyping and identification of the genetic cause of some of these conditions have demonstrated that primary lymphoedema is highly heterogenous. In 2010, we introduced a new classification and diagnostic pathway as a clinical and research tool. This algorithm has been used to delineate specific primary lymphoedema phenotypes, facilitating the discovery of new causative genes. This article reviews the latest molecular findings and provides an updated version of the classification and diagnostic pathway based on this new knowledge.

Lymphoedema is chronic swelling due to impaired lymphatic drainage typically affecting the extremities, but may involve any body site. It causes considerable lifelong physical and psychological morbidity; it is disfiguring and results in increased susceptibility to recurrent infection and increased risk of local malignancy [1, 2].

The lymphatic system is made up of a network of capillaries, collecting vessels and lymphoid organs that serve to maintain fluid homeostasis, immune surveillance and fat absorption from the gut [3]. Extravasated interstitial water and proteins are absorbed by lymphatic capillaries and propelled along the lymphatic network by lymph vessel peristalsis or by compression from surrounding skeletal muscles. Lymphoedema is the clinical consequence of swelling within tissue caused by the accumulation of lymphatic fluid due to damage, malfunction, absence or malformation of the lymphatic system.

The lymphatic system may fail for several reasons. The most common scenario is as a result of damage; known as secondary lymphoedema. For example, tumours, cancer treatment (lymphadenectomy and radiotherapy), trauma, venous hypertension and severe infection including filariasis may all damage a previously healthy lymphatic system [4-7]. Alternatively, an individual may develop primary lymphoedema as a result of a genetic predisposition; the lymphatic system fails to develop normally causing impaired drainage of lymph.

Limited data exist on the prevalence of lymphoedema. In 1985, Dale estimated the prevalence of primary lymphoedema as 1/6000 population based upon one UK clinic [8]. More recently chronic lymphoedema (of primary and secondary causes) was estimated to affect as many as 1.33/1000 population in the UK [9]. A similar survey in Derby estimates 4/1000 (VK, pers. comm.). Further epidemiological studies are needed to establish the true prevalence of primary and secondary lymphoedema.

A review of the literature on primary lymphoedema reveals the term ‘primary lymphatic dysplasia’ used interchangeably with ‘primary lymphoedema’ in several papers (e.g. 2009 Consensus Document of the International Society of Lymphology) [10]. We consider lymphatic dysplasia as an inherent developmental abnormality of the lymphatic system resulting in primary lymphoedema. Both terms are used within this review article.

Although the underlying abnormality of the lymphatics is often congenital, with the swelling manifesting as early as the prenatal period, at times it may not develop until puberty or adulthood. The lymphoedema can range from mild swelling to that of grotesque enlargement in chronic cases that have not received adequate treatment. Skin changes may be present, including brawny fibrotic skin and the presence of the Kaposi–Stemmer sign (the failure to pinch/pick up a fold of skin at the base of the second toe as a result of its thickness) that is pathognomonic of lymphoedema [11]. Papillomatosis (small flesh-coloured papules) occurs as a result of dilatation within the upper dermal lymphatics and subsequent fibrosis of the dermis. Lymphangiectasia appear as small blisters on the skin surface as a result of engorgement of lymphatic vessels. Lymph fluid frequently leaks as a result of minimal trauma and is termed lymphorrhoea.

The mainstay of treatment for lymphoedema is limited to physical therapy in the form of manual lymphatic drainage and compression hosiery/garments in combination with exercise [12, 13]. Early intervention with skin hygiene advice, appropriate footwear and compression hosiery has beneficial effects on swelling and reducing the risk of complications (e.g. cellulitis) in our paediatric cohort (KG and PSM, pers. comm.). There are no effective drug therapies available for the management of primary lymphoedema. Surgical management is largely unsuccessful and is often reserved for use in palliative situations where debulking of tissue is necessary. The use of tumescent liposuction may significantly reduce limb volume in patients who develop increased adipose deposition within their lymphoedematous limb [14]. Patient selection prior to liposuction treatment is key to its success; patients must comply with lifelong (all day, every day for life) post-operative compression garments in order to avoid deterioration in lymphoedema.

Mutations in several genes are now recognized to cause lymphatic dysplasia. Some, but not all, of these factors have been demonstrated to play a role in the pathway regulating lymphangiogenesis. Lymphangiogenesis refers to the development of the lymphatic system and begins during embryonic week 6–7 in humans. Recent research has demonstrated that it is regulated by several key factors/proteins [15-17]. The first two genes to be identified as causative for human lymphoedema were FLT4 in Milroy disease (MD; MIM 153100) [18-21] and FOXC2 in lymphoedema distichiasis syndrome (LDS; MIM 153400) [22-24]. As then several new genes for human lymphatic disease have been discovered and these will be discussed below.

Classification of primary lymphatic dysplasia

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Classification of primary lymphatic dysplasia
  4. Use of the classification pathway
  5. Conclusion
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. References

Allen introduced the first known classification of primary lymphoedemas in 1934 [25]. He divided primary lymphoedema into two broad groups: ‘lymphoedema congenita’, i.e. present at birth or shortly thereafter and ‘lymphoedema praecox’ which described cases where swelling occurred after birth. In 1957, Kinmonth et al. added the term ‘lymphoedema tarda’ if the swelling developed after the age of 35 years [26].

It became apparent that this classification system based purely on age-of-onset was over-simplified and redundant in clinical practice as it failed to facilitate categorization based on more specific phenotypes of primary lymphoedema. In 2010, Connell et al. created a classification pathway founded on clinical phenotype [27]. This was based not simply on the age of onset of the lymphoedema but also the sites affected and the presence of associated features, e.g. dysmorphology, distichiasis (aberrant eyelashes), varicose veins, prominent large calibre veins, vascular malformations, and limb overgrowth. Systemic lymphatic involvement is taken into consideration, i.e. a history of hydrops fetalis in utero (the abnormal accumulation of fluid in two or more foetal compartments, including ascites, pleural effusion, pericardial effusion, and subcutaneous oedema [28]), pericardial or pleural effusions, chylous ascites, or gastrointestinal lymphangiectasia. A family history of lymphoedema with determination of the mode of inheritance is an important consideration in this classification.

Specific phenotyping facilitates the identification of subgroups of patients with the same type of primary lymphoedema. This leads to better understanding of the natural history and management of the specific conditions and more accurate recurrence risks for future offspring/generations. These cohorts can then be used for molecular studies to identify causal genes. This has been a fruitful exercise, leading to the identification of several genes, which will be discussed.

Use of the classification pathway

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Classification of primary lymphatic dysplasia
  4. Use of the classification pathway
  5. Conclusion
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. References

We have revised and updated the Connell et al.'s algorithm (see Fig. 1) and included the newly identified genes. In this review article, we will focus on the subgroups which now have genes assigned to them, and newly identified conditions based on the clinical presentation. Some of the subgroups in the algorithm will not be covered in this article as no genes have yet been identified and so the phenotype remains unchanged; the reader can refer to Connell et al. for descriptions [27]. Use of the pathway requires appreciation of certain terminology which is listed in Table 1 and should be read in conjunction with Fig. 1.


Figure 1. Revised classification pathway for primary lymphoedema. FH, family history; +ve, positive; −ve, negative; unilat, unilateral; bilat, bilateral. Text in red indicates suggested genetic test for the subgroup. Please refer to Table 1 for definition of other terminology used in the figure.

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Table 1. Definition of terminology used in the classification pathwaya
  1. a

    This table should be used in conjunction with Fig. 1.

Congenital onsetOnset of lymphoedema before the age of one year.
Cutaneous manifestationsNaevi/pigmentation variations (e.g. epidermal naevi)/vascular malformations.
DistichiasisPresence of aberrant eyelashes arising from the meibomian glands.
Disturbed growthHypertrophy (overgrowth) and hypotrophy of bone or soft tissue resulting in altered length of a limb or body part.
KT/KT-likeKlippel—Trenaunay/ Klippel—Trenaunay-like syndrome.
Late onsetSwelling presenting after one year of age.
Prenatal onsetDetection of lymphatic abnormality in the prenatal period. Isolated pedal oedema is excluded from this definition as this may be a presentation of Milroy disease.
SegmentA region of the body affected by lymphoedema (i.e. face, conjunctiva, genitalia, upper limbs, lower limbs—each constitute one body part). Multisegmental refers to more than one segment affected by lymphoedema. Bilateral lower limb swelling is not considered to be multisegmental lymphoedema.
SyndromicA constellation of abnormalities, one of which is lymphoedema.
Systemic involvementSystemic lymphatic problems persisting beyond the newborn period or manifesting at any age thereafter. This includes hydrops fetalis, chylous ascites, intestinal lymphangiectasia, pleural and pericardial effusions, and pulmonary lymphangiectasia.
Vascular anomaliesInclude congenital vascular abnormalities.

The lymphatic dysplasia classification pathway is presented in the form of a colour-coded algorithm to illustrate the five main categories of primary lymphoedema and the individual subtypes within these categories. We appreciate there will be exceptions and outliers to this classification system but for the vast majority of patients it has proved a useful clinical and research tool which is still evolving.

Syndromic (blue section)

Lymphoedema is a recognized feature of many syndromes. In some of these conditions the lymphoedema is not the primary problem but is an associated feature. The most common conditions in this category include Turner, Noonan (NS; MIM 163950) and Prader Willi (PWS; MIM 176270) syndromes. The genetic causes of many of these syndromes are known and testing is available. A molecular result means that the mode of inheritance can be established and where indicated, prenatal diagnosis can be offered. Table 2 provides a list of syndromes that include lymphoedema as a feature. A new addition to this list is Oculo-dento-digital syndrome (ODD; MIM 164200) which is caused by mutations in the GJA1 gene. Lymphoedema has recently been reported as an associated feature of ODD syndrome in a family, where a novel GJA1 mutation co-segregated with the affected status [29].

Table 2. List of known syndromes associated with lymphoedema and the causative gene (or chromosomal abnormality) if knowna
Known syndromeChromosome/gene
  1. a

    Further information for each of these genes can be found on the OMIM website.

Aagenaes syndromeNot known
Carbohydrate deficient glycoprotein types 1a, 1b, and 1hPMM2, PM1, ALG8
Cardio-facio-cutaneous syndromeKRAS, BRAF, MAP2K1, MAP2K2
CHARGE syndromeCDH7
Choanal atresia-lymphoedemaPTPN14
Ectodermal dysplasia, anhidrotic, immunodeficiency, osteopetrosis and lymphoedema (OL-EDA-ID syndrome)IKBKG (NEMO)
Fabry diseaseGLA
Hennekam syndromeCCBE1
Irons-Bianchi syndromeNot known
Lymphoedema-myelodysplasia (Emberger syndrome)GATA2
Macrocephaly-capillary-malformation (MCM)PIK3CA
Microcephaly-chorioretinopathy-lymphoedema-mental retardation (MCLMR)KIF11
Mucke syndromeNot known
Noonan syndromePTPN11, KRAS, SOS1, and others
Oculo-dento-digital syndrome (ODD)GJA1
Progressive encephalopathy, hypsarrhythmia, optic atrophy (PEHO)Not known
Phelan McDermid syndrome22q terminal deletion or ring chromosome 22
Prader Willi15q11 microdeletion or maternal UPD 15
Thrombocytopenia with absent radius1q21.1 microdeletion and RBM8A
Turner syndrome45XO
Velocardiofacial syndrome22q11 microdeletion
Yellow Nail syndromeNot known

The pathway works in such a way that in conditions in which lymphoedema/lymphatic dysplasia is a main feature, the condition may also be classified elsewhere in the algorithm so as to facilitate the identification of these phenotypes. So although Hennekam (MIM 235510) [30] and Microcephaly-chorioretinopathy-lymphoedema-mental retardation (MCLMR; MIM 152950) [31] are syndromes they are discussed in further detail in the ‘Generalized lymphatic dysplasia’ and ‘Congenital lymphoedema’ sections, respectively.

Systemic/visceral involvement (pink section)

Individuals with systemic/visceral involvement have a widespread developmental abnormality of the lymphatic system; the swelling is not confined to the peripheries. Onset of lymphatic dysfunction prenatally can present with hydrothoraces or hydrops fetalis. Prenatal hydrops may occur as a result of other conditions (e.g. Parvovirus infection, Rhesus incompatibility, non-immune hydrops due to a number of conditions) and these need to be excluded before considering primary lymphatic dysfunction as the diagnosis. In utero oedema can lead to dysmorphic facial features in an individual including epicanthic folds, a broad nasal bridge and neck webbing with low set ears [32].

Postnatal signs of systemic lymphatic abnormalities include pericardial and pleural effusions, chylous ascites, and pulmonary and intestinal lymphangiectasia. Patients with intestinal lymphangiectasia often complain of abdominal pain and diarrhoea following the ingestion of fatty foods, however, diagnosis is not always straightforward. Management of these patients is often complex and may include drainage of effusions and medium-chain-triglyceride (MCT) diets to manage intestinal lymphangiectasia and chylous disorders [33]. Prompt diagnosis of systemic lymphatic abnormalities aids early intervention that may prove lifesaving in some instances.

Individuals with systemic/visceral involvement can be further divided into two categories: ‘multisegmental lymphatic dysplasia with systemic involvement’ (MLDSI) and ‘generalized lymphatic dysplasia’ (GLD) [27].

Multisegmental lymphatic dysplasia with systemic involvement

MLDSI is characterized by a segmental pattern of lymphoedema affecting different body parts associated with systemic involvement (Fig. 2a–c). It may be associated with hemifacial swelling and conjunctival oedema on the affected side. More than one limb may be affected, but they may be contralateral. Intelligence is normal and there are no associated structural abnormalities. There is a low sibling and offspring recurrence risk and the underlying mechanism is thought to be explained by somatic mosaicism, but this requires further investigation (FC, pers. comm.).


Figure 2. Generalized lymphatic dysplasia and multisegmental lymphatic dysplasia with systemic involvement (pink section). (a–c) Fourteen-year-old girl with MLDSI. (a) Lymphoedema of the left arm associated with intestinal lymphangiectasia. (b) Left hemifacial oedema, (c) close up of left arm. (d and e) Four-year-old girl with GLD (Hennekam syndrome) due to homozygous mutations in CCBE1 [37] demonstrating (d) widespread lymphoedema, ascites, and (e) facial oedema.

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GLD/Hennekam syndrome

Patients with GLD have a more uniform, widespread pattern of lymphoedema affecting all segments of the body (Fig. 2d,e) and often presenting in utero with hydrops fetalis. A number of affected individuals in this cohort have a positive family history of lymphoedema usually suggestive of autosomal recessive inheritance inferring a higher recurrence risk.

Hennekam syndrome [30] is an example of GLD (Fig. 2d). Other phenotypes exist for this subgroup of patients, but Hennekam syndrome remains the only one with an identified causal gene. Hennekam syndrome is also known as lymphoedema-lymphangiectasia-mental retardation syndrome. The phenotype comprises lymphoedema of all four limbs, lymphangiectasia (dysplasia of the lymphatic system of the intestines and/or lungs), variable degrees of learning difficulties and characteristic facies (flat face, flat and broad nasal bridge, hypertelorism) (Fig. 2e). Other associated problems include hypothyroidism, glaucoma, seizures, hearing loss and renal abnormalities. In severe cases it may present in the antenatal period with hydrops fetalis, and/or cardiac abnormalities [34, 35]. Lymphoscintigraphy has rarely been undertaken in this condition but Bellini demonstrated abnormal drainage in the upper and lower limbs and the thoracic duct in one patient [34].

Hennekam syndrome is inherited in an autosomal recessive manner. Mutations in CCBE1 (collagen and calcium binding EGF-domain 1) on chromosome 18q21 have been identified as causal [36, 37]. However, CCBE1 mutations were only present in 23% of cases [36], suggesting genetic heterogeneity.

CCBE1 function in humans has yet to be elucidated, but studies in mice and zebrafish confirm that ccbe1 enhances lymphangiogenesis induced by VEGFC and is also necessary for the budding and sprouting of lymphangioblasts [38, 39]. Nearly all identified CCBE1 mutations have been missense, but one frameshift has been reported [36, 37, 40].

Disturbed growth and/or cutaneous/vascular anomalies (yellow section)

Lymphoedema can be seen in conjunction with other vascular anomalies, disorders of growth and cutaneous abnormalities. Identifying the type of malformation and thereby the vessels involved is important for diagnosis and management. The International Society for the Study of Vascular Anomalies (ISSVA) Classification for vascular anomalies has been widely adopted to provide a common nosology [41].

This cohort of patients pose a phenotyping challenge as there is overlap in clinical findings and much confusion in the literature. The recent identification of de novo somatic mutations as the underlying mechanism for some of these conditions may promote further understanding.

AKT/PIK3/mTOR pathway

AKT acts within a molecular pathway that includes the genes, mTOR and PIK3CA. This pathway is critical as a pro-growth and anti-apoptosis facilitator in cancer but mutations in the genes also have other implications. AKT2 has been shown to have a role in lipomatous overgrowth in association with hypoglycaemia and AKT3 mutations cause hemimegalencephaly [42]. PIK3CA, PIK3R2 and mTOR have been implicated in a range of disorders associated with somatic overgrowth, vascular malformations, fibroadipose overgrowth, pigmented cutaneous lesions and megalencephaly [42-45]. Distinguishing specific phenotypes from within this cohort of patients is difficult, with much confusion surrounding this spectrum of disorders. CLOVES (congenital lipomatous overgrowth, vascular malformations, epidermal naevi and skeletal abnormalities) syndrome (MIM 612918) has been reported as a specific entity caused by somatic mosaicism of activating mutations in PIK3CA [43]. The same gene and same mechanism have also been implicated in a few patients with Klippel-Trenaunay syndrome (MIM 149000) and with fibroadipose hyperplasia [43, 46]. Lymphatic malformations can arise as part of these conditions. Further molecular studies, together with careful phenotyping, will facilitate the understanding of this spectrum of disease. Activated PIK3-AKT signalling underpinning the disease process gives rise to potential for therapeutic targets through inhibition of the PIK3/AKT/mTOR pathway [46]. It is likely that combined vascular malformations may also arise as a result of somatic mosaicism.

Proteus syndrome

Proteus syndrome (MIM 176920) is an overgrowth disorder characterized by progressive, segmental overgrowth of skin, connective tissue, skeleton and central nervous system. Lymphatic, along with capillary, malformations are the most common vascular changes seen in Proteus syndrome. Manifestations of Proteus syndrome may not be present at birth but develop and progress in infancy. The diagnosis can be established using diagnostic clinical criteria and/or molecular analysis [47]. The majority of individuals with clinically confirmed typical Proteus syndrome were identified to have a common activating mutation in AKT1, c.49G>A (p.Glu17Lys), arising as a result of somatic mosaicism. It is hypothesised that germline AKT1 c.49G>A mutations would be lethal early in embryonic development [48].

WILD syndrome

A phenotype with the acronym WILD (warts, immunodeficiency, lymphoedema, anogenital dysplasia) has been reported [49] which led us to identify patients in our register with similar clinical features. Therefore, they have been included in the updated pathway. They all have extensive, asymmetrical lymphoedema (multisegmental) (Fig. 3a,d) associated with facial and conjunctival oedema (Fig. 3e), swelling of the genitalia, capillary malformation over the chest (Fig. 3c), and epidermal naevi (Fig. 3b). Persistent wart infections with abnormalities in lymphocyte subset values (particularly CD4) are a consistent feature of this condition. These patients are all sporadic, suggesting probable somatic mosaicism. The underlying genetic cause has yet to be identified.


Figure 3. WILD (warts, immunodeficiency, lymphoedema, anogenital dysplasia) syndrome (yellow section). (a–e) Adult with WILD syndrome. (a) Lymphoedema and vascular malformation of right leg, (b) epidermal naevus (arrows) of left arm, (c) capillary malformation of chest, (d) lymphoedema of left arm associated with immunodeficiency and persistent warts (arrow) and (e) conjunctival oedema (arrows).

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Congenital multisegmental lymphoedema

There is a cohort of patients with congenital multisegmental lymphoedema in whom the pattern of lymphatic failure is asymmetrical with limb sparing (i.e. some limbs are normal) but without overgrowth or cutaneous or vascular anomalies. We hypothesise that somatic mosaicism in gene(s) involved in lymphangiogenesis may explain the aetiology of this subtype of congenital primary lymphoedema, so this condition has been highlighted in yellow as it theoretically shares the same mechanism as the other cohorts in the disturbed growth and/or cutaneous/vascular anomalies section (yellow section).

Congenital onset primary lymphoedema (green section)

Historically, all cases of congenital onset primary lymphoedema were classified as MD but MD has a distinct clinical phenotype and there are several different types of congenital primary lymphoedema.

Milroy disease

MD was first described in 1892 by William Milroy in a family with congenital lower limb lymphoedema that was painless and non-progressive [50]. Brice et al. further refined the phenotype by analysis of 71 individuals with MD [51]. They summarized the clinical features of MD and as such the phenotype is easily recognizable. The features include symmetrical congenital lymphoedema of the feet (Fig. 4a). Occasionally, onset of swelling may occur in the first year of life. Lymphoedema is typically confined to the feet and ankles, but may reach the knees. Affected individuals have up-slanting ‘ski-jump’ toenails due to disturbance of the nail bed by oedema. Prominent large calibre veins may be present on the dorsum of the feet and lower legs. Varicose veins, most commonly the long saphenous vein, have been reported in adults with MD, but do not appear to affect the paediatric population [51]. A third of affected males have hydroceles [51]. Very rarely, MD may present in the antenatal period with hydrops fetalis [52]. The swelling may regress and remain confined to the feet, or the hydrops may progress and result in intrauterine death [53].


Figure 4. Congenital primary lymphoedema (green section). (a) Milroy disease: twins with bilateral congenital lymphoedema of the lower limbs, predominantly the dorsum of the feet, due to a heterozygous mutation in VEGFR3. (b and c) Microcephaly-chorioretinopathy-lymphoedema-mental retardation syndrome (MCLMR) due to heterozygous mutation in KIF11. (b) Typical facial features with microcephaly, large ears, and full cheeks. (c) Congenital lymphoedema of the feet with a similar presentation to Milroy disease.

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Lymphoscintigraphy in MD confirms the failure of initial lymphatic absorption and has been termed a ‘functional aplasia’ of lymphatic vessels (Fig. 5b). Unlike the mouse model (Chy-mouse) [54], in the human the initial lymphatic vessels are present (confirmed on histological examination) but unable to absorb interstitial fluid [55].


Figure 5. Clinical phenotypes and corresponding lymphoscintigraphs. Lymphoscintigraphy showing uptake of Technetium-99 in the inguinal lymph nodes (ILN) at 2 h after injection in: (a) Healthy control. (b) Milroy disease demonstrating functional aplasia of the lymphatics (i.e. no uptake into the ILN). (c) Lymphoedema distichiasis syndrome with reasonable uptake to the ILN but evidence of marked reflux due to lymphatic valve incompetence. (d) Meige disease, poor uptake with evidence of rerouting via the deep lymphatic channels resulting in uptake within the popliteal lymph nodes.

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Abnormalities within FLT4; gene that encodes the VEGF receptor type 3 (VEGFR3) on chromosome 5q35 are causal of MD [18, 53]. Mutations in FLT4 are found in 70% of patients with congenital onset primary lymphoedema affecting bilateral lower limbs [56]. Inheritance is autosomal dominant with 85% penetrance [18, 19]. De novo mutations may occur so a family history is not mandatory [53]. Animal models have confirmed the role of VEGFR3 in lymphangiogenesis and studies have demonstrated that mutant VEGFR3 showed impaired kinase activity [20, 57]. All reported FLT4 mutations to date have occurred within the tyrosine kinase domain [53]. However, the exact mechanism of disease is not yet fully understood.

Milroy-like lymphoedema

Individuals with congenital lower limb lymphoedema who screen negative for FLT4 mutations are classified as having ‘Milroy-like’ lymphoedema. Recently a family with congenital lower limb lymphoedema, prominent large calibre veins and hydroceles inherited in an autosomal dominant pattern over three generations has been described. Affected individuals tested negative for FLT4 mutations but were found to have a frameshift mutation in VEGFC on chromosome 4q34 [58]. VEGFC is a ligand for VEGFR3 and controls lymphatic sprouting during embryonic development [38, 59]. Gordon et al. used in vivo overexpression assays in zebrafish to demonstrate that wild-type human VEGFC, but not mutant VEGFC, caused excessive sprouting of venous-lymphatic vessels, confirming that the VEGFC frameshift mutation was causative for the Milroy-like phenotype seen. It is therefore appropriate to consider VEGFC screening in patients with ‘Milroy-like’ lymphoedema.

MCLMR syndrome

A syndrome comprising microcephaly and congenital lymphoedema was reported by Leung in 1985 [31]. However, it was only recently that Ostergaard et al. identified that mutations in KIF11 on chromosome 10q24 were causative for autosomal dominant microcephaly variably associated with congenital lymphoedema and/or chorioretinopathy [microcephaly-lymphoedema-chorioretinal dysplasia (MLCRD) and chorioretinal dysplasia-microcephaly-mental retardation (CDMMR)] [60]. Now regrouped under the acronym MCLMR (MIM 152950).

Clinical features include microcephaly (−2 to −7 standard deviations from the mean) (Fig. 4b), congenital lower limb lymphoedema (mimicking MD) (Fig. 4c), eye abnormalities (chorioretinopathy and/or hypermetropic astigmatism), and mild to moderate learning difficulties [60]. Lymphoscintigraphy shows the same pattern that is seen in MD with a functional aplasia of lymphatic vessels. MCLMR should be considered in all microcephalic patients with congenital bilateral lower limb swelling.

The KIF11 protein product (EG5) is involved in spindle formation in mitosis but is not known to be directly involved in the lymphangiogenesis pathway [60]. The mechanism by which KIF11 exerts its influence on the development of lymphoedema remains a mystery.

Late onset primary lymphoedema (purple section)

Late onset lymphoedema refers to the development of lymphoedema occurring after the age of 1 year. This group contains a number of diverse disorders, some with life-threatening associated diseases (e.g. Emberger syndrome), but they all share the common finding of non-congenital limb swelling.

Lymphoedema distichiasis syndrome

Lymphoedema in association with distichiasis (aberrant eyelashes) was first recognized in 1899 [61]. The lymphoedema of the lower limbs (usually bilateral) (Fig. 5c, upper panel) develops in late childhood (usually during puberty) but onset may be congenital or as late as in the fifth decade. Distichiasis is frequently present at birth but rarely presents until childhood. Distichiasis, the presence of aberrant eyelashes arising from the meibomian glands (Fig. 6a, arrows), is sometimes only detectable on specialist examination and therefore frequently missed. These aberrant lashes can be highly symptomatic and cause ocular irritation, photophobia, recurrent infections (styes) and may require ablative treatment. Conversely, some individuals with distichiasis remain asymptomatic. Distichiasis was reported by Brice et al. to be 95% penetrant in this syndrome [62].


Figure 6. Late onset primary lymphoedema (purple section). (a) Distichiasis; aberrant eyelashes (arrows) arising from the meibomian glands in patient with lymphoedema distichiasis syndrome due to a mutation in FOXC2. (b and c) Emberger syndrome due to mutation in GATA2; (b) persistent warts on fingers (arrows), (c) bilateral, lower limb lymphoedema. (d and e) Late onset 4-limb lymphoedema due to heterozygous mutations in GJC2; (d) upper limb lymphoedema, (e) three family members with 4-limb lymphoedema. Notice the variable degree of swellings between family members.

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The LDS phenotype also includes ptosis (35%), cleft palate or Pierre-Robin sequence (3%) and congenital heart disease (8%) [62]. The vast majority of affected individuals have clinical and/or ultrasonographic evidence of incompetent or varicose veins [62]. LDS is inherited in an autosomal dominant manner. It occurs as a result of mutations in the FOXC2 gene on chromosome 16q24 [23]. Brice et al. demonstrated that mutations can be identified in more than 95% of cases with typical LDS [62]. Many cases are due to small deletions or insertions [63]. FOXC2 encodes a transcription factor necessary for the signal transduction pathway ensuring normal development of the lymphatic collecting vessels and valves [64].

Lymphoscintigraphy of affected individuals demonstrates reflux of lymph within the lower limbs as a result of valve failure within the hyperplastic lymphatics (Fig. 5c, lower panel) [65]. Similarly, abnormal venous valves lead to early-onset venous reflux in all patients with FOXC2 mutations [66].

Meige disease

Meige disease (MIM 153200) is probably the most prevalent subtype of primary lymphoedema and was originally described in 1898 by Henry Meige [67]. It typically presents with lower limb lymphoedema that rarely extends above the knee (Fig. 5d, upper panel). The lymphoedema does not appear in childhood, but in adolescence or adulthood. There are no other associated features of the condition [68]. Lymphoscintigraphy frequently demonstrates deep rerouting of lymph drainage as evidenced by increased uptake of tracer by popliteal lymph nodes and impaired main superficial lymphatic tract filling (Fig. 5d, lower panel) (PSM, pers. comm.).

Family history is often consistent with an autosomal dominant pattern of inheritance with variable penetrance. Whilst the causal gene of classical Meige disease has yet to be identified, a number of adolescents and adults with GJC2 gene mutations have presented with lymphoedema localized to the lower limbs (see section on 4-limb lymphoedema below). GJC2 should therefore be considered as a candidate gene for some patients historically labelled as having Meige disease.

Emberger syndrome

The association of primary lymphoedema with myelodysplastic syndrome and/or acute myeloid leukaemia was first described by Emberger in 1979 [69] (MIM 614038). Emberger syndrome is sometimes associated with a high frequency sensorineural deafness that may be congenital. Affected individuals develop bilateral or unilateral lower limb +/− genital lymphoedema in childhood, usually after the age of 6 years (Fig. 6c) [70]. Severe cutaneous warts are a common finding, presumably as a result of their immune dysfunction (Fig. 6b). Myelodysplasia develops at any stage and frequently progresses to acute myeloid leukaemia with a high mortality [70]. Lymphoscintigraphy has not been routinely performed in this condition, however, Mansour et al. demonstrated a functional hypoplasia of lymphatics within the affected lower limbs of their patients [70].

Mutations in the GATA2 gene on chromosome 3q21 are causal and inherited in an autosomal dominant manner [71]. GATA2 is expressed in lymphatic, vascular and endocardial endothelial cells [72]. Mouse studies suggest the programming of lymphatic valve development may be affected as a result of loss of function of GATA2 [73]. GATA2 is also involved in the regulation of haematopoiesis; GATA2 mutations have been reported in heritable forms of myelodysplastic syndrome and acute myeloid leukaemia [74] and two overlapping immunodeficiency syndromes, MonoMAC [75] and dendritic cell, monocyte, B and NK lymphoid deficiency [76].

Late onset 4-limb lymphoedema

In 2010, Ferrell et al. reported that mutations in GJC2 were implicated in the development of lymphoedema [77]. Ostergaard et al. provided further information on the phenotype with five pedigrees demonstrating an autosomal dominant pattern of inherited lymphoedema (MIM 613480) [78]. Although there was inter-familial variability of clinical signs the overall phenotype was one of late onset lymphoedema affecting the lower limbs or all four limbs (Fig. 6d,e). A significant number of these individuals also had varicose veins [78]. Lymphoscintigraphy demonstrates lymphatic tracts that appear normal but when quantification is done there is significantly reduced absorption from tissues by peripheral lymphatics in all four limbs [78].

We have seen a number of adolescents and adults with clinical evidence of lymphoedema localized to the lower limbs but with lymphoscintigraphic evidence of impaired lymphatic drainage within all four limbs. It remains to be seen whether these individuals progress to developed clinical signs of upper limb lymphoedema over time.

The functional role of GJC2 within the lymphatic system is unclear. GJC2 encodes the connexin 47 protein located on chromosome 1q42. Homozygous mutations in GJC2 have been reported in patients with Pelizaeus-Merzbacher-like disease (MIM 608804), a rare form of CNS demyelination, but none of these patients or their parents were reported to have lymphoedema [79].


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Classification of primary lymphatic dysplasia
  4. Use of the classification pathway
  5. Conclusion
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. References

A number of causal genes have now been identified in the pathogenesis of primary lymphoedema, the majority within the last few years. Gene identification helps delineate the phenotype more specifically. It is hoped that the identification of more pathogenic genes will further our knowledge of the aetiopathogenesis of lymphatic disease. In time this may allow for the development of therapeutic interventions.

The identification of the genetic causes of primary lymphoedema provides a molecular diagnostic test for some of the subtypes. However, there are other primary lymphoedema subtypes for which the underlying genetic cause remains elusive. We predict that rigorous phenotyping in combination with recent advances in genetic analysis, e.g. next generation sequencing, will enhance the identification rate of new genes that cause primary lymphoedema. Accurate phenotyping requires a consistent approach to assessing patients, and the clinical pathway detailed here has proved fit for purpose. As with many genetic conditions, as we learn more about the genotype/phenotype correlations our understanding of these lymphatic disorders will evolve.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Classification of primary lymphatic dysplasia
  4. Use of the classification pathway
  5. Conclusion
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. References

We would like to acknowledge the members of the Lymphoedema Research Consortium, UK. We extend our thanks to the patients and their families and the British Heart Foundation for funding the work of K. G. (FS/11/40/28739) and P. O. (PG/10/58/28477).


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Classification of primary lymphatic dysplasia
  4. Use of the classification pathway
  5. Conclusion
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. References