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Soft robotics offers hope for patients undergoing throat surgery

Jonathan Rossiter

Professor Jonathan Rossiter

Andrew Conn

Dr Andrew Conn

26 October 2016

Surgical removal of the voice box is a potentially life-saving treatment for laryngeal cancer. It is also a mutilating procedure, which means that patients may no longer be able to speak, swallow or cough. Engineers at the University of Bristol are using new robotics technologies to design devices that could potentially transform post-surgery treatment and recovery of such patients.

Thousands of patients worldwide undergo laryngectomy (surgical removal of the larynx, or the voice box) every year. In addition to the direct cost of the procedure and significant follow up costs, there is a large social and personal cost to both the patient and the patient’s family.

The procedure often renders the patient with a permanent stoma in their neck, leaves them with little or no voice and a severely impaired sense of taste and smell, as well as putting them at much greater risk of airway blockage from food and drink that may enter the trachea.   Patients are currently unlikely to return to both work and society, with a consequent negative impact on patient quality of life and increase in social costs.

Professor Rossiter, Head of Soft Robotics group at Bristol Robotics Laboratory, and Dr Conn, from the School of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bristol, used their Elizabeth Blackwell Institute Knowledge Transfer (TRACK) award to investigate new ways to overcome the severe effects of surgery in the larynx and throat. Together with their colleagues from the University College London (Professor Birchall and Dr Graveston) they approached the challenge through the development of new robotics technologies that are designed to work seamlessly with the human body.

The team developed an artificial respiration system that simulated breathing with different physiological parameters.  This allowed them to prototype robotic larynx replacements and analyse their performance. The newly designed device offers a way to restore important functional capabilities of the larynx and to avoid the implantation of conventional, uncomfortable and ill-fitting alternatives.

Their project has helped to lay ground work for the development of future robotic technologies not only for laryngectomy but for other applications in healthcare and rehabilitation. The ultimate aim of producing a total larynx replacement (TLR) device capable of implantation in patients is becoming a reality and would have huge health, social and economic impact. 

Professor Rossiter and Dr Conn say: ‘The award from EBI has enabled us to translate the latest soft robotics technologies into the medical domain. This research and development work has been instrumental in laying the foundations for future implantable soft robotic medical devices that can restore body functions lost to ageing, disease and trauma. We are continuing to work on this exciting project through the follow-on Wellcome Trust Translation Award. We expect this work to lead to clinical tools and new therapies within the next five years which would have a huge positive impact on the recovery and quality of life of patients as well as producing a significant economic benefit for the healthcare systems.'

Further information

Read more about the Soft Robotics group at the University of Bristol.

Read more about Professor Rossiter’s research

Read more about Dr Conn’s research

Visit the EBI Website to learn more about the Institute. 

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