Bead Breakthrough

New technique preserves potent proteins in glasslike form

Duke researchers have devised a method to dry and preserve proteins in glassy microbeads that seem to retain the molecules' properties while potentially making them easier to use in medication.

David Needham, a professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, says that he was able to separate the proteins from water by pulling the water into an organic solvent called decanol. Left behind was a tiny bead of protein that can be preserved because it contains an amount of water so small that bacteria and fungi cannot grow in it. The protein can still function normally when rehydrated.

At present, proteins are dried into clumpy, irregular powders—usually by freeze-drying—to protect them from being damaged by microbes and to retain most of their utility. The problem is these powdered proteins tend to clog syringes. Needham and his research group hope the glassy microbeads, which are only about 26 millionths of a meter in diameter, will someday replace powders and will be directly injected into the body as medications. Their research indicates that high concentrations of microbeads would not be as likely to clog syringes.

Also, turning proteins into microbeads is less time consuming than freeze-drying, researchers say. They are working in collaboration with Duke's Tisch Brain Tumor Center and Comprehensive Cancer Center and are seeking additional funding to conduct initial evaluations of glasslike forms of three molecules that could potentially be used to fight cancer.

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