Agents of change: It’s a box full of hope

DECCAN CHRONICLE | SURUCHI KAPUR-GOMES
Published Jan 3, 2016, 12:00 am IST
Updated Jan 10, 2016, 1:05 pm IST
Cancer of the throat leaves survivors without a voice.
Cancer is an innocent and confused cell that wants to live forever
 Cancer is an innocent and confused cell that wants to live forever

Cancer is an innocent and confused cell that wants to live forever. So, when the head and neck surgeon at Bengaluru’s HCG hospital, Dr Vishal Rao, decided to tackle its inherent character, he was on to something game changing.

The oncologist who has been spearheading anti-tobacco drives across the country, has been targeted and even attacked by a massive lobby that’s holding on desperately to survive. And a recent talk at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, summarising his “magic bullet for cancer”, went on to antagonise several more minds. “I told them that what they had been doing for 50 years is wrong. The cancer cell does not function like that. The magic bullet we are developing and researching can change lives,” the doctor says. More on that later but for now, Dr Rao is not here for an experiment he has been conducting... he is here for a very real device that’ll bring hope to thousands.

 

He and his team have launched the Aum prosthesis — a voice box for those with throat cancer. The devices already in the market cost at least Rs 35,000. The Aum prosthesis? Just
Rs 50. “I had a patient with throat cancer and he was unable to speak and couldn’t afford a voice box. I was trying to arrange a donation when a friend, an industrialist asked, ‘Gift him a voice box? But for how long will you keep doing this? Why don’t you make one?’ That started us thinking and with his financial help, we did it. His name is Shashank Mahesh, and he is the co-inventor. We have it in the market and now, we want to give 10,000 to all the regional cancer centres in the country,” says the 37-year-old.

The device weighs just about 25 grams and for the poor, after draining most of their reserves fighting the cancer, this cheap device is a nothing short of a boon. In a separate interview, Dr Rao explained: “Speaking is a right. When the voice box of patients is removed during surgery, they crave to speak. As if the trauma of the disease is not enough, the shock of having lost their voice takes a toll on them, emotionally. The prosthesis available in the market costs Rs 20,000 (to be changed once in six months) and is not viable for many.”

Meanwhile, searching for the cryptic nature of the cancer cell, Dr Rao is certain that the answer lies in the Nobel prize-winning Otto Walburg’s theory of the 1930s that revealed that cancer feeds off sugar. “We have not fully understood it, even today there are several aspects unknown. PET scans have become the most important tests, as they inject radioactive sugar into your blood and the tumour glows like a bulb. Yet what Warburg couldn’t explain was — why the cancer cell does not use oxygen.

My theory goes on to explain metabolic switches. If we were to target it there, and stop it, then maybe we could change the game. Someone at John Hopkins University came close to a drug, yet they could not explain why it was working magic. There was a huge controversy and ‘they’ didn’t allow it to develop, that’s how powerful the lobbies are. But we are on the brink, and we have to get the drug and patent it as it works on more than 80 per cent of cancers,” explains Rao.

He has an interesting explanation for cancer too. “The cancer cell’s search for immortality goes back to when the Earth’s atmosphere had no oxygen — but organisms survived. The cancer cell lives like this. Sometime during evolution, the cellular structure started controlling functions, and the mitochondria said ‘let me handle the cells’ respiration. You see, the cancer cell wants to live forever, we have found that target. We hope to introduce the theory if we get the right expertise in the next six months.”





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