When advanced throat cancers require removal of the entire voice box, patients can often regain the ability to speak by implanting surgical devices. But these prosthetic voice boxes are expensive, sometimes running up to more than $1000 per unit. Surgical oncologist Doctor Vishal Rao thinks that cost is unnecessary. In fact, he has developed a fully functional voice prosthetic specifically for throat cancer patients who have lost the ability to speak, and it costs less than $1.
The prosthetic is called AUM, named after the traditionally Hindu and Buddhist symbol that represents the defining principals of the universe. For Dr. Rao, communication is a fundamental part of human life that “resonates and resounds all aspects of creation.” In India, where both tobacco and poverty are common, cancer patients can rarely afford the high price tags of prosthetic devices imported from other countries.
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The idea for AUM came to Dr. Rao when a patient who couldn’t afford the Western prosthetic asked what could be done. Rao partnered his technical and medical expertise with the industrial and engineering knowledge of co-inventor Shashank Mahesh, and AUM quickly became a reality. Making an affordable prosthetic available to the masses was also possible thanks to the manufacturers, suppliers, and scientists who volunteered their time to the project just because they believed in its huge mission. The finished prosthetic costs only 50 Rupees, or about $0.75.
AUM weighs just one gram, and is made of medical grade, platinum-cured silicone. In addition to its groundbreaking affordability, AUM only takes about 15 minutes to surgically implant. The prosthetic works thanks to a basic physics principal that sound is created when an obstruction is introduced to the passing of air. Once the voice box has been removed, the brain cannot communicate to the windpipe that sound should be restricted in a certain way as it passes from the lungs to the lips, creating the words we use everyday. Simply put, AUM redirects the passage of air from the lungs into the oesophagus, where food normally passes, so that the obstruction of the airway can be used to create sounds resembling regular speech.
Because the obstruction that AUM introduces is quite simple in comparison to the body’s natural voice box, the sound that patients can produce is not as varied and detailed as it would have been before surgery. Nonetheless, AUM makes communication possible for cancer patients who otherwise never would have been able to afford prosthetics. But for the patients that Dr. Rao and countless other oncologists treat in India every year, regaining the ability to speak is priceless.