Without A Song

Without A Song

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Ed Yeates ReportingUtah researchers are growing synthetic vocal cords that someday could give people who have lost their own cords the ability to speak and sing again.

We all take our voices for granted until something happens to the little box down in our throats. Suddenly, for some, that which makes us so characteristically human disappears and they are without a song.

Julie Andrews’s voice was distinctively her own until surgeons removed a growth on one of her vocal cords. She could still speak, but the singing voice would never be the same again.

It's even worse for Steve Mauger. Because of throat cancer doctors completely removed his voice box.

Steve Mauger: "It's like trying to talk to somebody and nothing is coming out. You can't imagine how horrible that feels."

Vibrating a device against his throat, Steve quickly learned how to speak again. But how he misses that sound which before was so distinctively his own.

Mauger: "To be able to express your feelings in your own voice without sounding like a machine or having people tell me I sound like a robot."

But what if people without could get back what they once had through synthetic vocal cords? At the University of Utah's Biopolymer Lab, a voice vibrates synthetic cords as they literally grow inside a bioreactor - the only one of its kind in the world.

The folds are plastic foam like strips, but human cells are growing on and through the material forming a strong matrix that vibrates with incredible resiliency. In fact, vibration itself seems to trigger the cells to grow a certain way.

Dr. Patrick Tresco, U of U Bioengineer: "The material is biocompatible - accepts the cells - and they grow into a tissue that has many of the properties of the intact vocal fold."

Now, imagine these implanted tailor-made bionic folds, through physical therapy, being trained architecturally to evolve into one's own voice box.

Tresco: "Our goal would be to create just the guitar string, the vibrating unit, and as long as that vibrating unit had the biomechanical properties that would be similar to the intact tissue, there's reason to believe that the voice would be similar to the voice the individual had prior to the damage."

The singing voice, the speaking voice, both very close to where they were before. Perhaps the bionic cords could even modify an existing voice, say from an uncomfortable weak raspy sound into a strong, clear, pleasing one.

Mauger: "I can't even tell you how it would feel. I don't care if it takes twenty years, I'll wait."

And Steve will have to wait. If this early research proves out, human clinical trials are probably at least ten years away.

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