It never fails to astonish me. The minds fostered at MIT always seem to come up with truly incredible things. They have given us Ethernet, perfected radar and even invented those nifty little disposable razors that I couldn’t possibly live without. This summer they are working on giving people with damaged vocal chords back their lost voices. Are they growing new vocal cords in a lab? Are they getting organ donations? Are they giving volunteers small computers that can vocalize for them? Of course not! Obviously they’re using polymers!
This magical polymer is known as PEG30, which is a modified polyethylene glycol. It actually mimics the elastic properties of vocal chords. The technical term for the pliability of the vocal cords is viscoelasticity. PEG30 is flexible, durable and responds effortlessly to the movement of air. Simply put, normal lung power causes PEG30 to form the shapes needed for proper speech to be achieved.
PEG30 will mostly be used in individuals who have vocal cord scarring. This ailment is more common than you think. Vocal scarring generally occurs in children who have been intubated. In an emergency situation, where a child needs oxygen quickly, gentle treatment of the vocal cords is not at utmost priority. The British Singer/Actress Julie Andrews is likely the most famous example that comes to mind. In 1997 she underwent surgery to remove non-cancerous lesions from her throat. The subsequent vocal cord scarring that she suffered has never healed to this day, and has left her unable to sing.
Ms. Andrews plays a role in the current research being done into PEG30. Andrews approached the professor of laryngeal surgery, Steven Zeitals of Harvard University, concerning her dilemma. He had been developing a material that could be injected into scarred vocal tissue to lessen rigidity. When his research hit a wall he sought help from Robert Langer, a professor of chemical engineering for MIT. Together, they and their team have produced this wonderfully responsive vocal gel.
PEG30 is not yet in use today. It has however been found safe by the FDA. The hope is to use PEG30 in some injectable capacity. Human trials will begin in 2012, with a goal of having 10 test subjects. If PEG30 is found to be acceptable for mainstream use, %6 of the US population will have the ability and a reason to sing. I’m sure they won’t sing as well as Julie Andrews, but at least plastic helped to bring forth from them, the sound of music.