#IndiaInnovates — Aum, voice prosthesis device at less than a dollar
Interview with Dr Vishal Rao, Inventor Aum — voice prosthesis device
Dr. Vishal Rao is an oncologist with expertise in Head & Neck Surgery. He has trained at one of the most prestigious cancer institute’s of India, Tata Memorial Hospital at Mumbai. Dr Rao has invented the AUM voice prosthesis to help throat cancer patients get their lost voice back, at an affordable price. He believes in prevention to palliative approach to oncology, and works with several groups on holistic healing. He runs an initiative — Heal your life, Heal your cancer.
Q: What was the motivation to pursue surgery especially in Oncology?
A: Truly “I Don’t Know” — But a driving force exists, that keeps calling for you towards something you may call it destiny.
As you continue through your journey of education, you will several times come across a subject, a chapter or a topic that speaks to you. It is as though, an old friend has met you after a long time. You instantaneously connect with this subject. This is the driving force!
This is my experience with oncology or even for that matter with topic of voice. I connected with this topic from the first year of my medical school. I spend much time understanding this topic, and also dissecting the nerve to the voice box in early years of med school with my professor Dr. Humbarwadi who inspired me to look at this organ differently. He always told me, this thing called voice box is unique and mysterious.
Q: How serious is the impact of oral cancer in India?
A: Head and neck cancers comprise almost 30% of the 1 million new cases of cancers found in India each year. Oral cancers account for ~70–80% of the cancers in head and neck region. What is more relevant is the fact that 95% of these cancers are tobacco related, and hence preventable.
Q: How did the journey from a doctor to innovator start?
A: Problems are precursors to innovations. This journey begins when the problem finds you.
I had a throat cancer patient from Chikkaballapur, a small town in Karnataka; he came to me for treatment. He was already operated and his voice box removed. His main complaint was how could he speak again? He said, I cannot afford the voice prosthesis, as it costs up to INR 30,000. This visit was followed by an interaction with a friend Shashank Mahesh, my co-inventor of this prosthesis. I was sharing this problem with him and expressed my desire to help the patient through donations to procure the prosthesis. He replied “Why don’t you develop an affordable device? I can help you with the industrial expertise and you provide the medical inputs.” This was the starting point for the development of Aum.
Q: Can you please tell us about Aum, the voice prosthesis device you have invented?
A: Prosthesis is an artificial device that replaces a missing body part lost through trauma, disease, or congenital conditions. Voice prosthesis is an artificial device, made of silicone that is used to help laryngectomized patients to speak. During laryngectomy, the entire voice box is removed and the trachea and esophagus are separated from each other. During laryngectomy an opening between the food pipe and the windpipe can be created. This opening can also be created at a later time. This opening is called a tracheo-esophageal puncture. Most patients of throat cancer who undergo laryngectomy are unable to speak due to removal of voice box. The patients eat through their mouths but they cannot speak as there is no voice box. Accordingly there remains a need for an improved device with one way valve that enables laryngectomy patients to speak.
Aum voice prosthesis — a device for patients with throat cancer — helps patients whose voice box is removed to speak again.
Q: How did you innovate to keep the cost of AUM so affordable, ~Rs 50 per device?
A: The existing prosthesis devices range from Rs 15,000–35,000. Our device is priced at Rs 50 (<1$). The intent is to reach out to the poor and help the regional cancer centers where majority of these patients are treated.
We were able to develop this affordable device, due to the sincere commitment of scientists, engineers, and material experts, who assisted us to reach this goal and by not charging for the time or talent.
What type of trials are you currently conducting to test the device?
A: We have presently completed a prospective study to evaluate the efficacy and safety of Aum voice prosthesis. All materials used in manufacture of the device have been certified medical grade products.
Q: How are you working with various healthcare stakeholders (HCPs, NGOs, Govt. Bodies etc.), for user feedback on product development and design?
A: Currently we are working in two aspects:
1. Training of doctors — we hope to set up a state wide ToT model, having interested doctors participate as trainers.
2. Product availability — Identifying regional cancer centers across country that may need these voice devices and supporting studies in these centers to assist patients.
Q: Do you see an application for AUM beyond the current focus on cancer patients?
A: Currently, other than cancer, it applicability may be to patients of trauma who have lost voice box.
Speech and communication in our society forms not only a basic tenet to sustain life force, but also a right for freedom, peace, justice, and dignity. Only due to cost constraints these patients where bereft of this essential means of communication.
Q: Any thoughts on improving the collaboration between medical device start-ups and the healthcare ecosystem?
A: Doctors need to take up lead roles as entrepreneurs and role models to integrate with engineering fields. Questions with clinical relevance need to come from the medical fraternity; this will help sustain innovations which are clinically relevant.
Q: AUM paves the way for rehabilitation revolution. Your thoughts on where this journey is headed.
A: Science would be incomplete if it were to only remain a hope for future; but unable to serve the present and remain inaccessible to the needy. Hence, inventions and innovations are the key driving force that forms the basis and foundation of scientific breakthroughs and revolutions. We have miles to go and promises to keep…..
Please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org for further information on Dr. Rao’s project and if you want to collaborate with him on cancer awareness endeavors.