Brussels, 22 Oct 2003
Whilst current rehabilitation techniques for sufferers of larynx cancer can provide patients with a substitute voice, it is often quiet and of poor quality. To overcome this Eureka, the European network for market oriented research and development, is funding the NEWVOICE project, which aims to improve the quality of life for laryngectomees.
Voice rehabilitation is performed by inserting a one way shunt valve between the trachea and oesophagus that prevents food and liquid from entering the trachea. Air is subsequently forced through the valve to the oesophagus where soft tissue structures create a substitute voice. The voice's lack of power is due to the design of the shunt valve, so research teams from the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic and the UK are collaborating in order to develop a new voice producing shunt prosthesis.
Dr Bart Verkerke is from the project's coordinating partner, the University of Groningen. He explained how the current initiative was the result of previous collaboration within the Eureka network: 'Most of the NEWVOICE participants were involved in [the Eureka project] ARTIFICIAL LARYNX, during which we gained a lot of the expertise in medical devices to improve the rehabilitation process that will be used in this project.'
Inspired by the lips of a trumpet player, the partners have already developed a new prototype voice producing element within the valve itself that produces a voice with sufficient volume, adjustable frequency and natural intonation. As this element is too large to fit into current shunt valves, however, the challenge now is to redesign the valve itself.
One of the key design challenges presented by such valves is that regular contact with food and fluid stimulates the formation of a biofilm. 'This causes the shunt valve to malfunction, making it necessary to replace [it] frequently, on average every four months,' explains Dr Mark Waters from the Cardiff dental school. 'The task of the UK partners is to develop silicone rubber materials which are less susceptible to biofilm formation.'
The project has already developed coatings that slow down or prevent biofilm adhesion, thus greatly extending the useful life of a shunt valve. 'The major challenges lying ahead include finding a material that can resist all yeasts and bacteria [...] and finding a voice producing element small enough to fit into a shunt valve,' said Dr Verkerke.
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