Artificial Vocal Cords May Help Singers Retain Range, Cancer Patients Keep Their Voices

FILE - In this Feb. 15, 2011 file photo, Adele performs on stage during the Brit Awards 2011, at The O2 Arena in London. Adel
FILE - In this Feb. 15, 2011 file photo, Adele performs on stage during the Brit Awards 2011, at The O2 Arena in London. Adele, who had surgery on her vocal cords last year, will perform at the Grammys on Feb. 12, 2012. It will be the first time she has performed live in five months. (AP Photo/Joel Ryan, file)

There are artificial limbs to help people walk and artificial hearts to keep people alive, and soon, a groundbreaking new technology could let some of the world's greatest singers sing again.

The concept of artificial vocal cords is something that goes back many years, according to Steven Zeitels, one of the most renowned vocal surgeons in the world and one of the leading researchers on the project. He has previously performed what many consider career-saving procedures on the likes of Adele, Steven Tyler, Roger Daltrey, Cher, Lionel Ritchie and Julie Andrews.

Now Zeitels is working with MIT professor Robert Langer and his team of scientists to create artificial vocal cords, which would not only benefit singers, but also cancer patients and those who have lost their voices to aging or disease.

A group of Zeitels' previous patients, including Tyler, Andrews and Daltrey, have even gone so far as to create a non-profit fundraising organization called The Voice Health Institute, founded in Boston in 2003, which supports the development of the artificial cords.

Zeitels told HuffPost that the cords are made of a "highly elastic gel," which flutters just like healthy vocal cords do. He said earlier tests have been successful and that his team could begin trials on cancer patients as early as next year.

"Soon, this could just be an office procedure," Zeitels predicted. "An injection. You'd be done in 15 minutes."

It may still be a few years before artificial cords can help singers. Repairing a hoarse voice damaged by years of overuse is much easier than repairing the voice of a belting singer with a multi-octave range, Zeitels said. But as the technology of the cords improves, they will be able to stretch further and work harder.

"Once you prove a human being can be restored, then this will become such a valuable tool to society," said Zeitels. "This will take lost voices and everything they would have done with their voice, and let them recontribute again."

But Zeitels thinks even bigger. In 10 years, he says, a person "using their two thumbs" on a mobile device will look primitive, as voice-activated technology becomes more and more popular. A healthy voice, he suggested, will be critical to keep up with such changes.

Anthony Hollander, a professor in the school of cellular and molecular medicine at Bristol University in the UK, expressed skepticism, telling BBC News that it's too early to tell if the product will be successful. The main challenge will be integrating artificial cords with the real ones already in place, he said, and it's possible that up to five injections a year could be needed to keep the gel working.

Still, Zeitels is hopeful that these new developments could make a tangible difference in the lives of singers, as well as millions of others.

"Think of someone used to reading to their grandchildren, they talk like this," Zeitels said, doing his best impression of a hoarse voice. "For someone who sounds 80 years old, who can be [healed] in this way, you can imagine how electric this will become."