Mary Poppins star Julie Andrews has been dropping in on scientists developing artificial vocal cords that might one day restore her voice.
The US team hopes to test the elastic synthetic tissue on patients suffering from voice loss as early as next year.
Andrews, 76, who permanently lost her full vocal range after an operation in 1997, chairs a non-profit organisation funding the research and is being treated by a voice doctor collaborating on the project.
She could potentially be one of the first patients to benefit from the injected biogel, which is designed to vibrate in the voice box like a real vocal cord.
Vocal cords consist of two folds of tissue that function in much the same way as the reed in a saxophone. When exhaled air blows through them, they vibrate or “flutter” to produce sounds.
Straining the voice through overuse can create scar tissue, which stiffens the vocal cords and causes the voice to become hoarse and breathy.
Similar damage can be caused by cancer, medical procedures, or simply the effects of ageing.
The vocal cord gel developed by Professor Robert Langer’s team at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston is based on a material already used in approved cosmetic creams, medical devices, and drugs.
In tests, it has been shown to flutter at 200 times per second, which is about the normal rate for a woman talking. The gel would be injected into the vocal cords to replace scar tissue.
“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,” said Prof Langer.
A report on the research was presented at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Philadelphia yesterday.
Ms Andrews became involved after being treated by Professor Steven Zeitels, director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Voice Centre.
Prof Zeitels, whose other patients include Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and British popstar Adele, said: “About 90% of human voice loss is because of lost pliability. I recognised this need in my practice over the years after seeing many patients with voice problems. I went to Bob Langer because I knew he could help design a material that would ultimately help patients speak and sing again.”
Andrews chairs the Voice Health Institute, which is funding the research. Singer Lionel Richie and Roger Daltrey of The Who are among those on its advisory board.
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