Cancer research discovers unexpected new way to produce nylon - EDU

Cancer research discovers unexpected new way to produce nylon

Researchers in their quest for a cancer cure have instead discovered a molecule which could facilitate cheaper and greener ways to produce nylon.

Researchers from the Duke Cancer Institute made the discovery from an intriguing notion that some of the genetic and chemical changes in cancer tumours might be harnessed for beneficial uses.
Nylon is a ubiquitous material, used in carpeting, upholstery, auto parts, apparel and other products.

 A key component for its 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.

The researchers 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. Enzymes play a major role in both healthy tissues and in tumours, but they are also used to convert organic matter into synthetic materials such as adipic acid.

One of the most promising approaches being studied today 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 identified a genetic mutation in glioblastomas and other brain tumours that alters the function of an enzyme known as an isocitrate dehydrogenase.

The researchers found that the genetic mutation seen in cancer triggers a similar functional change to a closely related enzyme found in yeast and bacteria (homoisocitrate dehydrogenase), which creates the elusive 2-hydroxyadipate dehydrogenase necessary for "green" adipic acid production.

"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.

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