A prosthesis that will dramatically improve the quality of life for throat cancer patients, making it easier for them to speak after undergoing radical surgery, has been developed by researchers in the UK and the Netherlands.
The Newvoice valve – created by researchers at the University of Wales College of Medicine, UK medical polymer specialists Principality Medical and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands – consists of a sound-producing cylinder integrated into a one-way valve made from bacteria-resistant silicone rubber.
Worldwide around 30,000 throat cancer patients each year must undergo a laryngectomy to save their lives. The procedure involves removing the larynx, vocal cords and epiglottis, then connecting the windpipe to the outside of the neck where it is sewn into the skin to leave a hole through which patients breathe.
The voice is restored using a one-way valve that prevents food and drink entering the trachea. To speak, patients must close the hole in their throat with a finger, forcing air through the valve and into the oesophagus where the tissues vibrate to produce sound.
Over a relatively short time these valves tend to malfunction due to a build-up of bacterial and fungal contamination from food and drink. The device may need replacing as often as every four months, requiring another operation each time.As the silicone rubber used to make the Newvoice valve is already resistant to bacteria and fungus it does not need to be coated, reducing manufacturing costs.
The valve can produce sound without the need for the throat to be covered with the hand and patients will also benefit from a more lifelike voice, as the system uses artificial rubber vocal chords to produce natural inflections and improved tonal variation.
‘This prosthesis should last years rather than months,’ said Dr. Mark Waters of the University of Wales College of Medicine’s Dental School, where the novel material was designed.