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Vocal cord gel interests Julie Andrews

Aug. 21, 2012 at 4:10 PM   |   Comments

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Aug. 21 (UPI) -- A foundation Julie Andrews lent her name to is supporting vocal-cord research that could possibly restore the English film and stage singer-actress' voice.

The 76-year-old actress -- who made her feature film debut in 1964's "Mary Poppins" and starred a year later in "The Sound of Music" -- permanently lost her four-octave vocal range after a 1997 throat operation.

She is the honorary advisory chairwoman of Boston's non-profit Voice Health Institute and has been dropping in on scientists developing artificial vocal-cord support that might one day rejuvenate her damaged vocal cords and restore her voice.

Other advisory board members include singing stars Lionel Richie and Roger Daltrey of the Who.

"Julie Andrews has visited our lab several times," said biotechnology Professor Robert Langer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose team has developed a synthetic vocal cord gel that can be injected into a patient's scarred vocal cords, replacing scar tissue and rejuvenating the vocal cords.

Andrews conceivably could be one of the initial patients benefiting from the injected biogel, which is designed to vibrate in the voice box like a real vocal cord, The Daily Telegraph said. The treatment may be ready for human trials as early as mid-2013, the newspaper said.

Vocal cords consist of two folds of mucous membrane tissue stretched horizontally across the larynx. They vibrate, or flutter, for speech or singing when exhaled air blows through them, oscillating 440 times per second when singing the A above middle C.

"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," Langer told the British newspaper.

Different biogel versions could be produced for different patients, depending on how they use their voices, researchers told the Telegraph.

One version tested in the laboratory has been shown to flutter at 200 times a second, which is about the normal rate for a woman talking.

A higher-grade, more flexible gel would be needed to help singers such as Andrews hit high notes.

The gel degrades over time, the newspaper said, so patients might need two to five injections a year.

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