Cancer research yields unexpected new way produce nylon

Cancer research yields unexpected new way to produce nylon

6:37 AM, 24th September 2012
Cancer research yields unexpected new way to produce nylon

DURHAM, US: In their quest for a cancer cure, researchers at the Duke Cancer Institute made a serendipitous discovery - a molecule necessary for cheaper and greener ways to produce nylon. The finding, described in the September 23, 2012, issue of the journal Nature Chemical Biology, arose from an intriguing notion that some of the genetic and chemical changes in cancer tumours might be harnessed for beneficial uses.

“The goal of this research is to understand how tumours develop in order to design better treatments. As it turns out, a bit of information we learned in that process paves the way for a better method to produce nylon,” said Zachary J Reitman, PhD, Research Associate, Duke Cancer Institute and Lead Author of the study.

Nylon is a ubiquitous material, whose key component for production is adipic acid, which is one of the most widely used chemicals in the world. Currently, adipic acid is produced from fossil fuel and the pollution released from the refinement process is a leading contributor to global warming.

Reitman said he and colleagues delved into the adipic acid problem based on similarities between cancer research techniques and biochemical engineering. Both fields rely on enzymes, which are molecules that convert one small chemical to another. One of the most promising approaches for environmentally friendly adipic acid production uses a series of enzymes as an assembly line to convert cheap sugars into adipic acid. However, one critical enzyme in the series, called a 2-hydroxyadipate dehydrogenase, has never been produced, leaving a missing link in the assembly line.

This is where the cancer research comes in. In 2008 and 2009, Duke researchers, including Hai Yan, MD, PhD, identified a genetic mutation in glioblastomas and other brain tumours that alters the function of an enzyme known as an isocitrate dehydrogenase.

Reitman and colleagues had a hunch that the genetic mutation seen in cancer might trigger a similar functional change to a closely related enzyme found in yeast and bacteria (homoisocitrate dehydrogenase), which would create the elusive 2-hydroxyadipate dehydrogenase necessary for “green” adipic acid production.

They were right. The functional mutation observed in cancer could be constructively applied to other closely related enzymes, creating a beneficial outcome - in this case the missing link that could enable adipic acid production from cheap sugars. The next step will be to scale up the overall adipic acid production process, which remains a considerable undertaking.

“It’s exciting that sequencing cancer genomes can help us to discover new enzyme activities. Even genetic changes that occur in only a few patients could reveal useful new enzyme functions that were not obvious before,” said Reitman.

Yan, Pofessor in Duke’s Department of Pathology and Senior author of the study, said the research demonstrates how an investment in medical research can be applied broadly to solve other significant issues of the day.

In addition to Reitman and Yan, Study Authors include Bryan D Choi, Ivan Spasojevic, Darell D Bigner and John H Sampson. The work was supported with funds from the National Institutes of Health.

© Duke University Health System News

 

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