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Biz / TechWednesday, May 18

Artificial Tongue Restores Speech

Tongue cancer often deprives patients of the ability to speak, but a university team has come up with a workaround. And the team is led by a researcher who knows the hardship all too well.

Oral cancer strikes about 7,000 people per year in Japan, and tongue cancer is the most common type.

Professor Kenichi Kozaki of Okayama University specializes in the treatment of oral cancer. Two years ago, the professor became a patient. He was diagnosed with tongue cancer.

Most of his tongue was removed, but the cancer had spread. So, parts of his lower jaw and throat also had to be excised.

"I've lost my tongue and half of my jaw. It's extremely hard. / When you use your month, you're almost always using your tongue. Speaking, eating and drinking without a tongue is more difficult than one can imagine," Kozaki says.

Especially for a teacher, talking is crucial. Collaborating on research and guiding students both require communication. Kozaki enlisted a professor who specializes in dental bite to work with him on making a tongue prosthesis.

Kozaki tested prototypes made by his colleague, Shogo Minagi, and suggested improvements.

"Each time he gave me frank opinions, telling me which part was hard to move. Sometimes, he said the prototype was useless," Minagi says.

Eventually, they came up with something that was useful. A resin tongue is attached to a frame, which is inserted onto the lower jaw. Another part is attached to the upper jaw.

Normally when we speak, the tongue touches the palate and releases. This prosthesis allows patients to move the artificial tongue with the remaining part of their own tongue, making contact with the palate.

Without a tongue, pronunciation is a problem. The artificial tongue helps.

"It's extremely stressful to be unable to convey your thoughts and feelings. Once you've experienced that frustration, being able to speak again is an immense pleasure," Kozaki says.

He also opened an outpatient clinic in the university hospital to provide access to the treatment.

Results don't come overnight. Physicians have to adjust the device and teach patients how to move it to produce sounds.

"I can speak almost as I used to. I'm really happy and grateful," one patient says.

Kozaki's own struggle has become more complicated. The cancer has spread to his brain and pelvis. Even so, he continues to offer hope to other cancer patients.

"I don't know how much time I've got left, but if someone needs my help --even though I'm in this condition -- I want to do whatever I can," he says.

Kozaki has another project in the works. He's collaborating with the Faculty of Engineering to develop voice-processing technology.