Mary Poppins, Lab Rat

by flick user obfusciatrist used under Creative Commons license

A spoonful of sugar it isn’t, but a biomedical breakthrough, urged on by none other than  74-year-old singer and actress Julie Andrews (aka Mary Poppins) may hold hope for thousands who’ve lost use of their vocal cords. 

Yes, science has developed yet another synthetic miracle to join titanium hips, pace-makers, and prosthetic robot hands. This time, it’s a gel form of polyethylene glycol—a key ingredient in skin creams and lubricants. Scientists believe the gel can mimic the larynx’s flaps of tissue which produce the human voice. They plan to start testing the gel on humans in two years.

Vocal cords, one might not be too surprised to learn, are alarmingly susceptible to damage. I still remember my distress when Chino Moreno (frontman for the Deftones) lost his primal scream to a vocal-cord injury and started putting out albums full of eerie art-noise instead.

Poor Julie Andrews isn’t putting out albums of notice, but she struggles to hold a note after a 1997 surgery to remove non-cancerous growths on her larynx left extensive scarring. Scientists at MIT and Harvard, working with the singer, hope the gel can restore her famous five-octave range.


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  • Sonja Sharp is a journalist in New York and former Mother Jones editorial fellow.