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Engineering a New Voice

A joint research initiative of MIT and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary may one day help people such as actress Julie Andrews, who lost her singing voice following vocal-cord surgery. MIT chemical engineer Robert Langer ScD ‘74 and otolaryngologist Steven Zeitels of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary have joined forces to develop an implant capable of restoring voice. Andrews spoke at a press conference in New York City announcing the project in June.

Voice is created by the vibration of vocal folds, two small bands of muscle in the voice box. Voice overuse or surgery can scar the delicate tissue that coats the folds, impairing its ability to vibrate and causing voice loss-a condition that affects millions of people. “Lots of research has been done on engineering heart tissue and cartilage, but very little on vocal folds,” says Mariah Hahn, an electrical engineering and computer science graduate student involved in the project. She says the task of creating replacements for vocal cords is especially challenging because of the wide range of frequencies over which the folds operate and the stress they must endure.

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