In a happy coincidence, a research team working on developing a better treatment for cancer discovered a way to make cheaper and eco-friendly nylon.
The incident happened at Duke Cancer Institute in Durham, North Carolina, where Zachary Reitman and his team, found that a key enzyme needed for the production of a chemical used in nylon can be obtained by using a genetic mutation that occurs in certain types of brain tumors.
"In our lab, we study genetic changes that cause healthy tissues to go bad and grow into tumors. The goal of this research is to understand how the tumors 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, an associate in research at Duke and lead author of the study.
Adipic acid, an important chemical in the production of nylon, is obtained from fossil fuels. The researchers found that they could produce this acid in an environmental friendly way using simple forms of sugars and a series of enzymes. The process of using enzymes to convert sugars into adipic acid was incomplete until now because nobody had produced an enzyme called 2-hydroxyadipate dehydrogenase that is required to complete the series.
The cancer research
The researchers from Duke University had identified (in 2008-09) a genetic mutation in glioblastomas and other types of brain tumors that changes functions of an enzyme known as isocitrate dehydrogenase. They hypothesized that this genetic mutation could alter activity of a related enzyme found in yeast- homoisocitrate dehydrogenase that could help them obtain the enzyme needed for the production of adipic acid- 2-hydroxyadipate dehydrogenase.
"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," Reitman said.
Nylon is used in apparel technology, carpeting, auto parts and upholstery to name a few. By 2015, it is estimated that global nylon production will reach 6.6 million tons, a rise primarily driven due to demand from the Asian markets. Since the current method of nylon production requires fossil fuel, research like this provides hope for a greener version of nylon.
In the next phase of the study, the researchers will attempt at scaling up the adipic acid production process.
"This is the result of a cancer researcher thinking outside the box to produce a new enzyme and create a precursor for nylon production. Not only is this discovery exciting, it reaffirms the commitment we should be making to science and to encouraging young people to pursue science," Hai Yan from Duke Cancer Institute said in a press release.