New vocal cord treatment could restore Julie Andrews' voice

Julie Andrews Credit: Yui Mok/PA Wire

Mary Poppins star Julie Andrews has been dropping in on scientists developing artificial vocal cords that might one day restore her voice.

Ms Andrews, 76, permanently lost her full vocal range after an operation in 1997 and is being treated by a voice doctor collaborating on the project.

She could be one of the first recipients of the treatment when human trials begin as early as next year.

Many people around the world lose the elasticity in their voice box through straining their voice, cancer, medical procedures or the effects of ageing.

No treatment currently exists to restore the elasticity that gives the human voice its large range. Stiffening of the vocal cords causes the voice to sound hoarse and breathy.

But scientists believe they could use a synthetic tissue which is designed to vibrate in the voice box like a real vocal cord.

Vocal cords consist of two folds of tissue that function in much the same way as the reed in a saxophone. When exhaled air blows through them, they vibrate or "flutter" to produce sounds.

Steven Tyler, lead singer of Aerosmith, has been a vocal supporter of the research Credit: Anthony Harvey/PA Archive/Press Association Images

A vocal cord gel, developed by Professor Robert Langer's team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has been shown to "flutter" at 200 times per second. That is about the normal rate for a woman talking.

Ms Andrews became aware of the work being done after being treated by the same voice coach that Adele has been seeing - Professor Steven Zeitels of the Massachusetts General Hospital Voice Centre.

Prof Zeitels approached scientists at MIT to develop a material that could impersonate the human voice box.

Ms Andrews chairs a group called The Voice Health Institute which is supporting the research. Members of the Institute's advisory board include singing stars Lionel Richie and Roger Daltrey of the Who.

Animal studies suggest the material is safe and human trials could begin around the middle of next year.