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Researchers grow vocal cords in lab

Lauran Neergaard
Associated Press

Washington – — From mom’s comforting croon to a shout of warning, our voices are the main way we communicate and one we take for granted unless something goes wrong. Now researchers have grown human vocal cords in the laboratory that appear capable of producing sound — in hopes of one day helping people with voice-robbing diseases or injuries.

Millions of people suffer from voice impairments, usually the temporary kind such as laryngitis from a virus or a singer who overdoes the performing. But sometimes the vocal cords become too scarred and stiff to work properly, or even develop cancer and must be removed. There are few treatments for extensive damage.

Your voice depends on tiny but complex pieces of tissue that must be soft and flexible enough to vibrate as air moves over them — the way they make sound — but tough enough to survive banging together hundreds of times a second.

Wednesday, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison reported the first lab-grown replacement tissue that appears pretty close to the real thing.

“There is no other tissue in the human body that is subject to these types of biomechanical demands,” said Dr. Nathan Welham of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who led the work published in Science Translational Medicine. “This lends promise or hope to one day treating some of the most severe voice problems that we face.”

Researchers bioengineered tissue that looks like the tiny folds nestled in a human voice box.

But do they vibrate the right way to make sound? To tell, they glued the new tissue into a voice box that had been taken from a dog after its death.

It didn’t sound like a voice because it takes all the resonating structures of the mouth, throat and nose to “give the human voice its richness and individuality ...” Welham explained.

This is a first-stage study, and it will take far more research before the approach could be tested in people, cautioned Dr. Norman Hogikyan, a voice specialist at the University of Michigan.