Breakthrough in cancer research? Scientists quickly un-boil an egg

Reuters/Vincent West
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? It turns out scientists care less about that age-old question than about getting a cooked egg back to the form that a mother hen would recognize. That ability could have dramatic implications for cancer research.

“Yes, we have invented a way to unboil a hen egg,” Gregory Weiss, the study’s lead author, said in a University of California, Irvine (UCI) statement.

Weiss led a team of chemists from UCI and Australia’s Flinders University, who focused on finding a method to efficiently produce or recycle molecular proteins. These valuable materials have a wide range of applications, but often “misfold” ‒ meaning they are left in the wrong structure or in an incorrect shape ‒ and are then rendered useless. The researchers published their results in the scientific journal 'ChemBioChem.'

Anomalous difference map of HEWL–TEW structure. (ChemBioChem/Gregory Weiss)

“In our paper, we describe a device for pulling apart tangled proteins and allowing them to refold. We start with egg whites boiled for 20 minutes at 90 degrees Celsius and return a key protein in the egg to working order,” the UCI professor of chemistry, molecular biology, and biochemistry said.

This is a big deal because even chemists assumed once you hard-boiled an egg it was game over, Weiss explained to ABC News.

When you put an egg in boiling water, the heat breaks the bonds that hold together the protein's amino acid strings. As the heat rises, these strings then form new, stronger bonds, forcing out the water and hardening the contents of the egg, CNET reported.

But Weiss’ team reversed the process so that proteins can be recovered and reused.

To recreate a clear protein known as lysozyme once an egg has been boiled, Weiss and his colleagues separated the boiled egg whites and yolks from each other. Then they soaked the whites in a chemical called urea – a substance found in human urine, among other places ‒ that chews away at the whites, liquefying the solid material.

At the molecular level, however, protein pieces were still folded into unusable masses. The scientists then used a vortex fluid machine, a high-powered device designed at Flinders University, that then spun the whites at high speeds to restore them to their original, unboiled ‒ and untangled ‒ state.

But the egg was just a means to an end for the scientists.

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

TEW binding sites (ChemBioChem/Gregory Weiss)

Weiss believes the same process can be used for many other types of proteins, as well.

“This method...could transform industrial and research production of proteins,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

Older methods of what is basically dialysis done at the molecular level are expensive and time-consuming; the old process takes about four days.

“The new process takes minutes,” Weiss noted in the statement. “It speeds things up by a factor of thousands.”

One area where it might be used is in the production of cancer antibodies, which are currently made in expensive hamster ovary cells. It would be much cheaper to use yeast or bacteria cells, employing Weiss’ un-boiling technique. Pharmaceutical companies would then be able to streamline their protein manufacturing, in turn making cancer treatments more affordable.

“We are already using it in our cancer research here” at UCI, Weiss told ABC News, adding that he hopes the technique will be used on a larger scale within the next few years.

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

The California-based university has applied for a patent on the work.