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UC Irvine scientists discover disease-fighting protein in tears

The revelation that lysozymes possess jaws may aid in early diagnosis of cancer

by Kristina WongPublished: January 24, 2012 12:35 PM

Novel technology revealed to scientists at UC Irvine that a protein found in teardrops has the ability to destroy harmful bacteria.  Sponsored by the National Cancer Institute and the National Science Foundation, this finding may prove to be vital to cancer research and other illnesses in the early stages.  

About a century ago in 1922, Nobel laureate Dr. Alexander Fleming discovered that human tears contain antiseptic proteins called lysozymes, which have anti-bacterial properties.  However, the mystery of how these lysozymes were able to annihilate the larger bacteria remained unsolved.  

According to findings published Jan. 20 in the academic journal Science, lysozymes contain jaws.  “Those jaws chew apart the walls of the bacteria that are trying to get into your eyes and infect them,” said molecular biologist and chemistry professor Gregory Weiss, who co-led the project with associate professor of physics and astronomy Philip Collins.

Researchers had to build one of the world’s smallest transistors, in order to monitor the eating activities of the lysozymes and ultimately, learn about the behavior of this disease-fighting protein.  

“Our circuits are molecule-sized microphones,” Collins said.  “It’s just like a stethoscope listening to your heart, except we’re listening to a single molecule protein.”

Though it took years for UCI scientists to construct the transistor and attach each individual lysozyme to the live wire, this novel technology supplies hope for the future of cancer research.  “It could take a decade to figure out but would be well worth it,” said Weiss, who lost his father to lung cancer.

“If we can detect single molecules associated with cancer, then that means we'd be able to detect it very, very early," Weiss said.  "That would be very exciting, because we know that if we treat cancer early, it will be much more successful, patients will be cured much faster, and costs will be much less."

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