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Cancer researchers stumble upon new way to make nylon

By Jay Price, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) –

DURHAM, N.C. — Duke University Medical Center researchers delving into the genetic mysteries of brain cancer stumbled on an intriguing discovery in a much different field: how to make a key ingredient of nylon in a way that could be both cheaper and friendlier to the environment.

The finding, described in the journal Nature Chemical Biology on Sunday, came after the scientists wondered whether some of the genetic and chemical changes in tumors might have beneficial uses, perhaps some even unrelated to medicine.

Nylon is one of the oldest synthetic polymers — a family of materials that includes PVC and neoprene — and one of the most common. For decades it has been used in products such as carpeting, upholstery, auto parts, clothing and for a host of industrial purposes.

A crucial component in its production is a chemical called adipic acid, which is now made from fossil fuels. Adipic acid also is used in making other polymers and drugs, and as a food additive. Chemical companies make several billion pounds of it annually in a process that is a major source of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.

The Duke discovery built on earlier research at the university that found that genetic mutations in some brain tumors changed the function of certain enzymes. Enzymes are molecules that convert one chemical to another. They play a major role in both healthy tissues and in tumors, and can be used to convert organic matter into synthetic materials — such as adipic acid.

Zachary J. Reitman, an associate in research at Duke and lead author of the new study, said he was pondering the changes that tumors can trigger in enzymes and began wondering what tasks the modified enzymes could perform.

“A lot of it was serendipity,” Reitman said. “These different enzymes can go awry and change their function, and we had observed that a couple of times and thought it would be interesting if it could be harnessed for something beneficial.”

A review of scientific literature pointed to a method that had been considered for a new way to make adipic acid from cheap sugars via a chain of different enzymes. One key enzyme, though, was missing.

Not anymore. The scientists were able to engineer it by modifying an enzyme found in yeast and bacteria, changing its function in the way that tumors can modify enzymes.

The discovery is essentially a by-product of the major advances in recent cancer research made possible in the past couple of years by rapid gains in the technology of mapping genetic material.

It’s possible, Reitman said, that there will be more discoveries in seemingly unrelated fields because of the flood of genetic research.

“We showed one way that you can take some implication from cancer and use it outside the box,” Reitman said. “I think it could be done more than once.”

It’s unclear how difficult it might be to make the process commercially viable, but the scientists are seeking a patent on their findings. Hai Yan, a professor in the Department of Pathology, was senior author of the study, and four other Duke researchers also contributed to the paper and are listed in the patent application.

For now, though, it’s back to their main research, Reitman said.

The day after the nylon study was published, he was back at work sequencing the genomes of a particular type of brain tumor.

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