The model could provide insights into treating damaged tissue. 

Researchers have used stem cells to make a 3D model of vocal cords that developed potentially cancer-causing changes after being doused in cigarette smoke extract.

The innovation could lead to genetic and drug therapies for hoarseness, vocal cord polyps and throat cancer, among conditions of the voice box that cost around USD$11 billion a year to treat, according to the authors’ estimates.

The vocal cords are twin slivers of tissue that sit at the top of the windpipe. Much like the reeds of an oboe, the cords vibrate as air passes across them, creating your unique voice. They also stop food titbits going down the wrong hole as they make their way through the gullet.

But the lining of the vocal cords, known as the mucosa, is delicate and takes a decided dislike to irritants including acid reflux, pollution, and the big bogeyman cigarette smoke.

The result is ongoing inflammation and a skin-like thickening of the mucosa called “keratosis” that can herald cancer.

But knowing how these bad guys act at the gene and molecular level is a tall order, given how hard it is to get snippets of vocal cord to study. Unlike, say, a skin sample, you can’t nip a bit of vocal cord from a healthy person without serious issues to their voice.

The researchers, led by Susan Thibeault from the University of Wisconsin Madison in the US, sidestepped that hurdle by growing their very own vocal cords in a dish.

Read the full story in Cosmos magazine here