Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are developing a special gel that mimics the vibrations of human vocal cords. The project could have profound effects on people with damaged voices, from aging singers to throat cancer patients. Here's what you should know about the project:
How does the gel work?
Doctors inject it directly into the vocal cord area, where it bonds with the existing membrane. Once in place, it responds to breath and muscle tension by vibrating at up to 200 times a second, just like a real vocal cord. The scientists rearranged the molecules in the gel — a type of polyethylene glycol, a compound sometimes found in skin creams — to get it to vibrate at the right speed.
Who can it help?
Potentially, a lot of people. The research is being funded in part by The Who's Roger Daltrey, Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, and actress Julie Andrews, whose voice was affected by 1997 surgery. They hope the gel will help people with damaged vocal cords to sing again. But it also could be useful to the 13,000 Americans diagnosed with throat cancer each year, or anyone in the 6 percent of the U.S. population with some kind of voice disorder. "It's not just for singers," Daltrey tells Bloomberg. "There are millions of people who have no voice whatsoever."
Could it really help people recover their voices?
It's still too early to tell. Right now, tests on animals suggest the gel could offer new hope to humans with vocal cord afflictions. We might know more soon, as doctors plan test the gel in a cancer patient for the first time in 2012. "It's one of Steven's main ambitions," Daltrey says, "to get this perfected in time to give Julie Andrews her proper voice back."