Science Note: Healing Vocal Cords
Air Date: Week of October 21, 2011
(Photo: DIY Dilettante)
Voices wear out for many reasons – over-use, smoking, surgery. Now, researchers have developed a synthetic gel to repair damaged vocal cords and bring those lost voices back. Stephanie McPherson reports.
GELLERMAN: Coming up – using art to raise awareness about climate change and rising water. But first, we head for the hills in this week's Note on Emerging Science from Stephanie McPherson.
[MUSIC: “The hills are alive, with the sound of music…”]
MCPHERSON: Julie Andrews is known for her soaring five-octave voice.
[MUSIC: Andrew’s voice jumps an octave at the end of “Doe a Deer”.]
MCPHERSON: But Andrews’ voice was damaged during surgery in 1997, and her vocal cords lost the elasticity that made that possible. Now, researchers have a synthetic material that restores the elasticity to damaged vocal cords.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
MCPHERSON: After much trial and error, and funding from the Andrews-associated Institute of Laryngology and Voice Restoration, researchers at Harvard and MIT have produced a gel that vibrates with the same elasticity as healthy vocal cords.
Vocal cords are fleshy flaps of proteins covered in a thin membrane. These flaps vibrate when air blows across, making a buzzing sound. It’s up to the shape of individual throats and noses to create the sound of a voice. Healthy vocal cord vibrations determine a voice’s range or volume.
Vocal cords are damaged when a person loses some of the protein layer, for instance from surgery, or over-use, which is common among singers. The researchers’ gel would be injected underneath the membrane to replace the lost proteins, restoring vibrations to their former glory.
Variations of the gel are used in dissolvable sutures, so the team knows it’s safe for human use. They plan to begin trials soon, starting with cancer patients whose vocal cords were damaged in surgery. But eventually, they hope to return a voice to all the voiceless. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Stephanie McPherson.
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