Also known as xerostomia, chronic dry mouth affects 20 million Americans and puts them at risk for tooth decay, fungal infections, and difficulties in eating and speaking. But researchers at the University of Connecticut (UConn) are developing an artificial salivary gland implant that mimics saliva production and relieves dryness.
Using chemical and mechanical engineering techniques, the device will use a reservoir that collects the patient’s own fluid and then filters and adjusts it to mimic the chemistry of saliva. The researchers believe it will help patients who have dry mouth due to medication side effects, cancer therapy, autoimmune diseases like Sjögren’s syndrome, or even aging.
“This isn’t just a question of discomfort,” said Dr. Robert Kelly, a professor of reconstructive sciences at the university’s school of dental medicine. “We expect our product will dramatically improve quality of life for patients suffering from this condition.”
So far, the researchers have conducted successful proof-of-concept experiments, received a pair of awards from the UConn SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund, filed patent applications, and incorporated a startup to commercialize and market the technology, Oral Fluid Dynamics, LLC.
The university’s Accelerate UConn entrepreneurship program, which helps researchers determine the commercial potential of their work, also selected the team for its first funding cycle. Accelerate UConn teaches participants how to find target buyers and get feedback before investing time and money on a technology without a customer as well.
Gopinath Rajadinakaran, a PhD and MBA student with a background in both science and business, conducted one-on-one interviews with different stakeholders to see if customers would want the implant, if doctors would recommend it to their patients, and if insurers would cover it.
“It was hard to connect with people suffering from the condition,” Rajadinakaran said. “Eventually I was able to make connections with patient support groups both in the United States and abroad, and I learned a lot about who our early adopters might be, what they are looking for in a medical device, and how we can improve our product.”
“Our commercialization plan and data are strong, and we’ve gained the support of early adopters and important groups like the Sjögren’s Foundation,” said Kelly. “I’m very positive about our chances to receive future funding and get this product to market. We’re going to keep building on this momentum.”