Field of Science

Fixing broken voices and how polymers are coming to the rescue of our medical needs

A team at MIT has developed a polymer gel that can mimic human vocal cords. Although vocal cords don't make it to the news very often, they are a serious problem for millions of people around the world. They can be a problem for celebrities, too. Julie Andrews, who once had a rare, four-octave voice, lost the range after a vocal cord injury. I wrote about the polymer gel in The Economist this week.
Laboratory tests have shown that when air is blown through a model of the vocal cords made from this material, the model responds in the way that real cords do. The new polymer gel is not intended to heal scarred tissue, but rather to make the whole tissue flexible enough to restore vibrations to normal. To achieve this Robert Langer, a biomedical engineer at MIT, proposes to inject the gel under the tissue membrane (a thin layer of cells that covers the vocal cords), forming an additional layer within... read more
Note: It's not what The Telegraph, who has happily jumped to the exaggeration bandwagon, would like you to believe. The gel isn't replacing scarred tissue. Instead, it is hoped that it will help restore flexibility in the vocal cords.

This is not the only innovation from Dr Langer’s lab that may make it into the human body. InVivo Therapeutics, an American medical devices company, with help from Dr Langer and his colleagues have developed a treatment for spinal cord injury. They use a scaffold made out of PLGA, a biodegradable polymer, to help patients recover from an injury that, if not dealt with properly, is infamous for causing paralysis. The scaffold is inserted at the point of the injury after removing dead tissue and is programmed to degrade within 21 days, the amount of time needed for the body to rebuild lost tissue. Although this treatment is not a cure either, the scaffold helps to make the most of the body’s repair systems. Work done on monkeys has shown that the technology works. This, too, will go into human trials next year, says Frank Reynolds, chief executive of the company.

Other work still in Dr Langer’s lab is looking at building intestinal, pancreatic and heart tissue using a range of materials. Touted as the next big frontier of medical technology, biomaterials are finally coming to the fore.

  1. A material to rejuvenate aging and diseased human vocal cords (Press release)
  2. Karajanagi et al, Annals of Otlogy, Rhinology and Laryngology, 2011
  3. InVivo therapeutics

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