Treating a swallowing disorder often demands multiple visits per week to a clinic—assuming the clinic has one of the expensive and cumbersome devices currently available to address swallowing. Curasis LLC has created a patch-like device that is less expensive, could be used at home and provides real-time, high-tech biofeedback.
Historically, swallowing disorders have been treated with methods that compensate for the issue, such as changing the texture of the food or drink or using special head and neck movements to aid swallowing.
“But in recent years, there’s been a shift to use more rehabilitative approaches; exercises to improve the muscle performance or the skill for the head and neck muscles,” says Purdue Associate Professor of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences Dr. Georgia A. Malandraki. “It’s similar to physical therapy for the arms and legs, but imagine the same thing for the throat, tongue and mouth muscles.”
The exercises, however, must be done with high frequency and intensity to be effective. And unlike arm or leg movements, you can’t see inside the throat or easily feel the muscles involved with swallowing, says Malandraki, “so you need some type of [feedback] that will give you some indication that you’re using those muscles correctly.”
The startup has invented a wearable device that collects and analyzes the muscle activity involved with swallowing. Purdue Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering Dr. Chi Hwan Lee says a small sensor patch is placed under the chin, and electrodes collect muscle activity signals while the patient swallows. The soft, flexible patch communicates with a small unit clipped to the patient’s shirt; software converts the data to a visual format the clinician and patient can use to interpret how the muscles are working.
The data is sent to the cloud, allowing the patient to do the exercises at home, while the clinician can see live feedback of the muscle activity. The biofeedback is important, says Malandraki, because the exercises need to be done accurately to be effective.
“We’re providing feedback for an area that’s really difficult to provide feedback for,” says Malandraki, who is also Curasis’ chief executive officer. “There are other devices [on the market] designed for swallowing or the head and neck in general, but our device is unique, because it’s specifically designed for the head and neck muscles—for their configuration, size, and muscle fiber type—and for swallowing-specific treatment.”
The Curasis team says driving down costs has been a key focus in the technology’s development; Malandraki says many clinics don’t have existing devices, because they range from about $300 to thousands of dollars.
“We’re reducing the materials’ cost and manufacturing costs, so the final product can be cost-effective,” says Lee, who is also Curasis’ chief technology officer. “We feel [the device] truly helps the patient in need. We’ve received many emails from patients and their families needing this type of device. That makes me really excited; feeling like this technology can help patients in need across the world.”
Curasis recently completed a pre-clinical trial with 40 people and is very close to launching a clinical trial that will enroll more subjects; about 15 patients are already on the startup’s waiting list, hoping to be part of the study. Malandraki and Lee believe the device could be commercialized in about two years.
“From the very beginning, it’s been our mission to get this device to patients and clinicians as soon as we can, but we also want to optimize it before it goes out into the world to help, hopefully, millions of people,” says Malandraki. “We want to improve the way we do treatment as a field – that’s what drives us.”
Malandraki says swallowing is a relatively new sub-specialty in Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, but also one of the most popular in the speech pathology field.
Lee says the device was designed from the ground up to work in tandem with the intricate swallowing muscles.