Bionic vocal cord may restore the sound of Dame Julie


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The Independent Online

The actress Dame Julie Andrews, star of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, is working with scientists developing artificial vocal cords that might restore her voice.

The American team hopes to test the elastic synthetic tissue on patients next year. Dame Julie, 76, who lost her full vocal range after surgery in 1997, is being treated by a voice doctor collaborating on the project and chairs a non-profit organisation funding the research.

She could 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 vibrate when exhaled air blows through them.

Overuse can create scar tissue, which stiffens the vocal cords and causes the voice to become hoarse and breathy. No treatment exists that can restore vocal-cord flexibility. The vocal-cord gel developed by Professor Robert Langer's team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston is based on a material already used in approved remedies. The gel would be injected into a patient's 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," Professor Langer said.

A report on the research was presented yesterday to the American Chemical Society in Philadelphia.

Animal studies suggest the material is safe and human trials could begin next year. Dame Julie became involved after being treated by Professor Steven Zeitels, director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Voice Centre, who is working with the MIT team.

"About 90 per cent of human voice loss is because of lost pliability. I went to Bob Langer because I knew he could help design a material that would ultimately help patients speak and sing again," said Professor Zeitels, whose patients include singer Steven Tyler, of Aerosmith, and the pop star Adele.

Dame Julie chairs the Voice Health Institute, which is supporting the research. Members of its advisory board include singers Lionel Richie and Roger Daltrey. Prof essor Langer said: "Julie Andrews has visited our lab several times. I think she really wanted to learn about what we were doing and see if there was any way she could help."