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Design competition aims to assist laryngectomy patients

Mar. 29, 2018, 9:05 AM

Laryngectomy patient James “Rev” Raley demonstrates his speech and breathing issues for students during the kickoff event for the LaryHacks competition. (photo by John Russell)

The first annual LaryHacks, a competition to design innovative devices, apps or methods to assist laryngectomy patients who have had their voice boxes removed, has been set for Thursday, April 12, 5 to 8 p.m., in the Wond’ry, 2414 Highland Ave. in the Vanderbilt University Engineering and Science building.

Patients who develop cancer of the larynx often have their voice boxes surgically removed, and the loss of this crucial physical structure causes significant challenges.

“Laryngectomy patients breathe exclusively through their neck, which defines the issue,” said Alexander Langerman, MD, associate professor of Otolaryngology. “They have trouble with communication, they have trouble protecting their airway from both dust and water and they lose their ability to smell.”

Vanderbilt is one of the leading centers for head and neck cancer care in the country and a Center of Excellence in the Southeast, with a huge patient referral base across seven states, so clinicians treat a large number of laryngectomy patients who need assistance with daily living.

Langerman, who is director of the VUMC Surgical Analytics Lab and the Faculty of the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society, worked with Jennifer Muckala, MA, assistant in Otolaryngology, and fellow head and neck surgeons, James Netterville, MD, Kyle Mannion, MD, Sarah Rohde, MD, Young Kim, MD, PhD, and Robert Sinard, MD, to develop the event.

“Vanderbilt has strength in so many disciplines, so we decided to draw on expertise from across the institution, as well as expertise from the greater Nashville area to create LaryHacks, which includes Vanderbilt students from engineering, business, medicine and speech and language pathology, plus students from Tennessee State University and O’More College of Design. This is the kind of event that brings a community together to help patients,” Langerman said.

The students participated in a day-long hackathon March 24 at the Wond’ry. The students were divided into teams and then met with laryngectomy patients who provided personal insights about the issues they and other patients face. Each patient rotated through the student teams and helped members collaborate on ideas.

The hackathon was taught by Kevin Galloway, PhD, research assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering, who directs the Design as an Immersive Vanderbilt Experience (DIVE) program.

The groups had access to the Wond’ry’s makerspace design labs featuring leading-edge equipment and materials conducive to experimentation. The makerspaces include fabrication tools and equipment for rapid prototyping, including 3D printers, sewing machines and fabrics for fiber arts, mold making and casting, as well as circuitry, and robotics.

In addition to faculty coaches from Vanderbilt and O’More, Nathan Duensing, executive chef at Thompson Nashville, helped coach a team working on methods to address patients’ loss of smell and taste.

“This entire exercise is about finding out what matters most to the patient,” Langerman said. “We’re trying to bring the patient into the design of methods to help them, which is part of our commitment to patient care. It’s also part of Vanderbilt’s leadership in design, immersion, and training and recognizes an emerging national trend in involving patients in the design of their health care.”

David Owens, PhD, professor of the Practice of Management and Innovation at the Owen Graduate School of Management, concluded the March 24 hackathon by teaching the teams how to turn their innovative ideas into reality.

During the final April 12 event, the student teams will unveil their design ideas and pitch them to a panel of judges who will choose the winner based on innovation, impact and feasibility.

The event is free and open to the public. Light refreshments will be served and free parking is available in the 25th Avenue Garage.

To register visit The event can be followed on social media with the hashtag #LaryHacks.

Sponsors for LaryHacks include the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center, the Vanderbilt Institute for Surgery and Engineering (VISE), plus ATOS and InHealth, two firms that provide supplies for laryngectomy patients.

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