Egg-cellence in Research

By Nilufar Nasirova, Biochemistry, 2018

Cancer is one of the most deadly groups of diseases, taking away millions of lives every year. In 2012 the number of patients diagnosed with cancer worldwide was over 14 million. The World Health Organization, or WHO, predicts that this number will continue to grow every year and by 2032 it is set to reach 22 million.

Throughout our life cells in our body constantly divide and grow. Cancer cells occur when there is a mutation in the cell. There are two main types of affected genes: oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes. Oncogenes are responsible for cell growth and, when altered, produce many copies of a bad gene. Tumor suppressor genes are responsible for cell division, DNA repair, and cell death (apoptosis) and when altered can lead to uncontrollable division of the cells.

Even with new methods and drugs discoveries, biotechnological companies struggle to efficiently recycle molecular proteins. Mutated cancer cells affect protein folding. Cancer drugs often work by targeting the protein made by a mutated gene.

However, there are not many complementary proteins known that can work in this way. At the moment there is only one type of cell, located in a hamster’s ovary, that rarely folds incorrectly. Many pharmaceutical companies want to use it during treatment development, but growing and acquiring these cells is expensive.

Recently, group of chemists from University of California Irvine announced a discovery that has the potential to change the way scientists think of cancer medication. The findings were published in the journal ChemBioChem. They are calling their discovery “unboiling egg whites.”

Gregory Weiss, UC Irvine professor of Chemistry, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry says, “In our paper, we describe a device for pulling apart tangled proteins and allowing them to refold.”

When an egg was initially boiled, the proteins in the egg clump together, causing the gelatinous liquid inside the egg turn solid. The method with which Weiss and his colleagues used was using urea substrate in order to “unboil” the egg, liquefying the solid material and re-creating the clear protein.

When the protein is still clumped together it is unusable mass, so this was then forced back to its original form by a “vortex fluid device”, which separates compressed gas into hot and cold streams, to stress the proteins. “The new process takes minutes,” said Weiss. “It speeds things up by a factor of thousands.”

This new method by Weiss and his colleagues is truly remarkable. Who would have thought that an ordinary hen egg could have such a huge impact on the treatment of cancer.

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