Sitting in a hospital waiting room as her father had knee surgery, UTHealth School of Dentistry at Houston Associate Professor Gargi Mukherji, DDS, drew sketches of a safety device she imagined might solve a known problem in dentistry:  how to keep small objects from falling down a patient’s throat.

“There are so many procedures we do in which an accident can happen,” she said. “If you have a loose crown, it can slip out of your hand or the patient can move. If it goes down the esophagus, the patient may eventually pass it, but if goes into the airway, it can be really bad. It’s in the literature that patients have died.”

Mukherji shared her sketch with Associate Professor and Assistant Dean Ralph Cooley, DDS,  her colleague and mentor in the Department of General Practice and Dental Public Health. Together, they tweaked the design and came up with a single-use, perforated plastic device with special holes on each end to thread with floss. Inside the patient’s mouth, the device would protect the throat, yet be easily retrievable by means of the floss.

Gauze and rubber dams have been used for this purpose, but gauze gets wet and can be swallowed. Rubber dams are effective, but some patients can’t tolerate them. Other devices require elaborate equipment and cannot be used in certain procedures, such as dental extractions.

In 2016, Mukherji and Cooley took their idea to UTHealth’s Office of Strategic Industry Initiatives which, in collaboration with the Office of Technology Management, provided encouragement, support and guidance.

“We had to come up with drawings and designs, plus do some research about which companies would even think about looking at this product,” Cooley said, noting that the two UTHealth offices coordinated business, strategic and logistical aspects of the project.  “We would’ve never thought of some of the things they put in the contract.”

Minnesota-based Zirc Dental Products, Inc. “jumped on the idea,” Mukherji said, and worked with UTHealth to perfect the design, file the patent application, and give the new product a marketable name: Airway Armor™.

After Zirc conducted their own research and tests, Airway Armor went on the market earlier this year. The device is available in three sizes (small, medium or large). Royalties will go to UTHealth, the School of Dentistry and to Mukherji and Cooley as inventors. Although it all began with her sketch, Mukherji considers Cooley a full partner in the creative process. 

“It wouldn’t have gotten to where it is without his support,” she said. “We did it together.”

Maybe so, Cooley said, but the creative spark was all hers. “Dr. Mukherji has the ability to think just a little bit outside the box. She had the common sense to come up with this.”

And as it happens, Airway Armor may not be their only invention. “We do have another one, but we don’t want to talk about it yet,” Mukherji said. “We haven’t had much time to work on it, but we do have a second product.”

Office of Strategic Industry Initiatives Associate Director Melissa Thompson, PhD, is thrilled. “Drs. Mukherji and Cooley’s story really epitomizes the type of opportunities and collaborations that my office aspires to support through industry relationships,” she said. “I look forward to collaborating on future projects with them, as well as other faculty at the School of Dentistry.”