Fewer operations

Throat cancer patients could soon need fewer operations thanks to a new speech valve developed by the Hull University and Medway School of Pharmacy.

Up to fifty per cent of throat cancer patients need their voice box removed, and to be able to regain the power of speech, they need to have a small valve inserted into their throats. These valves are widely recognised as the most successful way to restore speech following laryngectomy, but recipients are subjected to a lifetime of further and frequent operations due to the short lifespan of the valves.

Now, medical engineers at Hull University, working with ear, nose and throat surgeon, Stephen Ell at Hull Royal Infirmary, have designed a new valve that could last significantly longer, reducing throat cancer patients’ suffering and improve their quality of life.

Throat valves restore vocal function by diverting air from the windpipe into the throat, creating vibrations so that speech can be formed. However, current silicone valves suffer rapid deterioration due to bacteria and yeast build-up. This bio-film build-up causes valves to fail quickly, typically after three months, and means a visit to hospital to insert a replacement every time the valve fails for the rest of the patient’s life.

The redesigned valve is the result of three years of research with advanced engineering materials and laboratory trials have shown it to be resistant to the effects of bio-film. This work was performed by Dr Tim Paget and Dr Zarah Mamhoud from the Medway School of Pharmacy – a partnership between the Universities of Greenwich and Kent.

’Our results to date suggest that the new valve could not only last longer but should be safer too, as when current valves fail, liquids can leak into the lungs leading to dangerous consequences, but this is not possible with the new design,’ Dr Paget said.

The new valves would save the NHS approximately £10m by removing the need for the estimated 16,500 valve replacement operations a year. The valve has the potential to transform the lives of throat cancer patients across the world should clinical trials prove successful.