Strained or damaged vocal cords can signify the sudden end of a singer's career. But a team of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are developing a new synthetic tissue that could serve as "artificial vocal cords" and help singers once again hit those high notes.
76-year-old stage and screen icon Dame Julie Andrews, best known for starring in the movie musicals "Mary Poppins" and "The Sound of Music," lost most of her vocal range due to complications following a routine throat surgery in 1997. She has since described her singing voice as "pretty non-existent." Could science restore her voice to its former glory?
Andrews teamed up with Lionel Richie and other artists to form the Voice Health Institute, which funds MIT's research. She is now working with a team of scientists that includes Professor Robert Langer and Dr. Steven Zeitels, the director of the Voice Center at Massachusetts General Hospital who operated on Adele after the singer suffered hemorrhaged vocal cords in 2011.
In speech or song, air is pushed through two folds of tissue that vibrate to create noise. When vocal cords are damaged or overused, scar tissue forms, limiting the movement and vibration needed to generate complex sounds.
"The synthetic vocal cord gel has similar properties as the material found in human vocal cords and flutters in response to air pressure changes, just like the real thing," Langer told the BBC.
The gel, which is called polyethylene glycol 30, is strong but flexible and able to flutter about 200 times per second, equivalent to a woman in conversation. Patients would require up to five throat injections a year.
The treatment could also benefit others, such as throat cancer patients, while singers would receive "a more flexible version to help them hit the high notes," according to the Daily Mail.
The gel has been tested successfully in animals, and the researchers say that the first human test patients could be treated within a year.