Mimicking the extraordinary properties of vocal cords is a challenge that has long defied scientists, but laryngeal surgeon Steven Zeitels at Massachusetts General Hospital and MIT bioengineer Robert Langer may have found a way. Having developed a gel made from polyethylene glycol, a polymer typically found in personal care products such as moisturizing cream, they produced a form that vibrates at the frequency of vocal cord tissue.

Injected under the vocal membranes, the gel changes the vibratory characteristics of vocal cords so that they respond naturally to airflow and muscle contraction. Stiff, scarred vocal cords—the result of overuse, surgery or trauma—become pliable again, and hoarse voices smoother. Physicians can fine-tune the gel by slightly changing its composition to match a particular voice and its tasks, which may range from simple conversation to a singer’s complex, intense delivery. So far the gel has passed safety testing in animals, and clinical trials in people are expected to begin in 2013. If successful, the gel could give voice to millions of people with damaged vocal cords—and, notes Zeitels, might even one day be used to make older voices sound youthful again.