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New Gel May Restore Vocal Cords

New Gel May Restore Vocal Cords

A new polymer gel could help restore scarred vocal cords…

A new polymer gel developed by a team from Harvard and MIT has shown promise in repairing scarred vocal cords to give patients back their voice. The new material could offer hope to the millions of people around the world who suffer from vocal disorders.

In the 90’s, Steven Zeitels, a professor of laryngeal surgery at Harvard Medical School, had been working on producing a material that could mimic the functions of human vocal cords. In 2002, he decided to recruit the help of MIT’s Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and an expert in developing polymers for biomedical applications.

Doctors can already treat folded vocal cords with materials typically used in plastic surgery, but this does not work for everyone and even when it does, the results are short-lived. But treating scarred vocal cords is much more difficult.

To create the polymer gel the team modified a material known as polyethylene glycol (PEG) – and FDA approved substance used in many medicines and medical devices. By altering the structure of the PEG molecules, the team is able to give the material the same viscoelasticity as human vocal cords. The result is a gel that can be injected to restore the voice.

FDA guidelines will classify the gel as an injectable medical device, rather than a drug. And because the gel does break down after time, it would need to be injected once every 6 months.

The project, which is funded by Institute of Laryngology and Voice Restoration, has gained much attention, perhaps in part because famous actress Julie Andrews is the foundations honorary chairwoman. Andrews, who lost her voice following a surgical procedure to remove a noncancerous lesion from her vocal cords in 1997, approached Zeitels for help and quickly became involved with project.

The researchers have published more than a dozen papers on voice-restoration, and have already applied for a patent on their material. They are also seeking FDA approval and hope to start clinical trials next year.

Should these trials prove successful, the new material could help millions of people with voice disorders. It’s estimated that 6 percent of the U.S. population suffers from some type of voice disorder – that’s over 18.5 million people in America alone.

Many of these sufferers have scarred vocal cords due intubation during surgery, or laryngeal cancer. Other cases of vocal disorders can be as simple as strained voices, but for teachers and other public speakers, such symptoms could signify then end of their current career.

“This would be so valuable to society, because every time a person loses their voice, say, a teacher or a politician, all of their contributions get lost to society, because they can’t communicate their ideas,” Zeitels says. [MIT]

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  1. Claw Dillow: Harvard-MIT Team’s New Synthetic Vocal Cord Gel Gives Voice to the Voiceless. Popular Science, 07/14/2011.
  2. Anne Trafton: New material could offer hope to those with no voice. MIT News, 07/14/2011.

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