Scientists unboil egg – a wee step forward for cancer treatment … and cheese makers

27 Jan 2015

How do you want your eggs? If it’s unboiled, then researchers in California have you sorted, with a little help from urea substances.

What’s more, the process used by UC Irvine and Australian chemists could significantly aid research into cancer treatments, thanks to the revolutionary discovery in how to un-bind proteins.

As with all research projects, a problem must be broached before a solution found. In this case, it seems the irritation at having to scrape away wasted gummy proteins from test tubes in the laboratory is what most irked scientists.

Urea substances, always with the urea substances

“Yes, we have invented a way to un-boil a hen egg,” says Gregory Weiss, UCI professor of chemistry and molecular biology & biochemistry.

“It’s not so much that we’re interested in processing the eggs; that’s just demonstrating how powerful this process is.

“The real problem is there are lots of cases of gummy proteins that you spend way too much time scraping off your test tubes, and you want some means of recovering that material.”

Weiss and his colleagues found a way to un-bind proteins fused together as eggs boil. By adding a urea substance to the boiled whites of eggs, it chewed away at the proteins, liquefying the solid material.

But that’s just half the battle, it seems, as at molecular level the bits of protein are still all mashed together into unusable masses.

From a land down under

In stepped Professor Colin Raston, whose south Australian laboratory had designed a vortex fluid device, a high-powered machine that applies shear stress within thin, microfluidic films, forcing the proteins back into untangled, proper form.

This method speeds up previous ways of un-binding proteins “by a factor of thousands”, claims Weiss. “This method … could transform industrial and research production of proteins,” the researchers write in ChemBioChem.

UC Irvine gives a good example of how significant this discovery could be for cancer treatments in future. At the moment, pharmaceutical companies create cancer antibodies in expensive hamster ovary cells that don’t misfold proteins often.

“The ability to quickly and cheaply re-form common proteins from yeast or E. coli bacteria could potentially streamline protein manufacturing and make cancer treatments more affordable,” says the university.

“Industrial cheese makers, farmers and others who use recombinant proteins could also achieve more bang for their buck.”

Raw, soft-boiled and hard-boiled eggs image, via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic