University of Utah electrical and computer engineering assistant professor Benjamin Sanchez is bringing a revolutionary way to measure tongue health with a low cost and easy to use multi-sensor popsicle called the User Tongue Array (UTA) depressor.

“The tongue is a critical muscle to assisting in the digestive process, serving as a tool for evaluating food quality through taste, assisting in mastication, and finally in deglutition to propel the bolus backward into the pharynx. In humans, the tongue takes on an additional special function: serving as a powerful tool for communication. Given the essential roles the tongue serves, it is not surprising for a dysfunction of the tongue to have a major impact on patients’ quality of life. For example, it can threaten patients’ lives when food enters the lungs or malnutrition associated with severe weight loss,” said Sanchez.

Other clinical instrumentation available for measuring tongue health include videofluoroscopy swallowing exams, needle electromyography, tongue pressure manometers, ultrasonography and magnetic resonance imaging. While valuable, these approaches have limitations including being qualitative, involve the use of ionizing radiation, there is pain associated, and require highly-trained personnel and expensive equipment.

Sanchez’s invention comprises of three parts: a disposable UTA depressor connected, a recording device called User Tongue Electronic System (UTES) with Bluetooth communication to interface with the UTA, and an Android-based smartphone application called UTAP. The UTA depressor is made up of standard printed circuit technology that you can find in every electronic circuit and has practically no cost.

Low costs make this already groundbreaking technology even more valuable. Physicians can dispose of the depressor after use, completely avoiding cross-contamination. The UTES has a battery pack so it is electrically safe and the UTAP displays the data within five to 10 seconds. With this technology, medical studies can become more accessible and accurate as patients with limited mobility can take the device home and measure themselves more frequently than would be possible these measurements were done at a clinic.

“From a statistical perspective, to assess drug efficacy in slowly progressing diseases from scarce clinic visits (e.g.,  months apart) requires recruiting lots of patients which increases the cost of clinical trials,” Sanchez said. “One way to speed up drug discovery while at the same time reducing the cost of clinical trials is by doing the tests at home. However, there are challenges associated: the technology has to be cheap and simple so people can use them with minimal training. Our technology meets these requirements .”

Leading up to this project, Sanchez worked with his mentor at Harvard Medical School, Boston, to whiteness doctors’ day to day struggles evaluating the health of their patients.

“We tackled the problem following an engineer’s approach using theory, computer simulations, and finally engineering a device with the intended functionality,” Sanchez said.

This research was led by Dr. Sanchez and performed by graduate student, Xuesong Luo. The work was recently Highlighted by the Editorial Team of Clinical Neurophysiology for its novelty and high impact in future research.

The UTA depressor is now in the process of getting institutional review board approval at the UHealth and the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas to use on patients with neuromuscular disorders causing bulbar dysfunction and tongue cancer.

Read the full paper here.