It sounds like research that doesn't have much more of a practical application than making people say "neat", but chemists at UC Irvine have figured out a way to unboil egg whites — turning them from a solid back into a liquid — and the process behind it promises to help lower the production cost of cancer drugs and other expensive medications.
The act of unboiling an egg that spent 20 minutes in hot water is actually just a fun way to show off just how powerful this new process can be. On a more practical level, it means that scientists can use and recycle molecular proteins that have a tendency to "misfold" into tiny shapes and structures when produced that actually make them unusable. In laymen's terms, the proteins scientists produce in a lab often end up like the spongy white material in a hard-boiled egg, when researchers actually need it to be more of a liquid like in a raw egg.
The new process certainly sounds complicated:
To re-create a clear protein known as lysozyme once an egg has been boiled, he and his colleagues add a urea substance that chews away at the whites, liquefying the solid material. That's half the process; at the molecular level, protein bits are still balled up into unusable masses. The scientists then employ a vortex fluid device, a high-powered machine designed by Professor Colin Raston's laboratory at South Australia's Flinders University. Shear stress within thin, microfluidic films is applied to those tiny pieces, forcing them back into untangled, proper form.
But compared to older and more expensive methods that take up to four days to complete, the new process takes just minutes to untangle the proteins. This time-saving process could both simplify and streamline the creation of specific proteins that many cancer drugs rely on, allowing them to simply be recycled from other more common sources. And if pharmaceutical companies are able to produce these drugs faster and cheaper, it hopefully means they would then pass the savings onto cancer patients dependent on those medications. [UC Irvine via Popular Science via Technabob]