March 25, 2010

Distillers grains component may have prospects medical arena

As part of its annual look into corn and distillers grains-related research at the University of Nebraska, the Nebraska Corn Board got a look at the medical opportunities for zein – a protein that is only found in corn.

Zein nanospheres (about 0.001 the thickness of a human hair) are hollow and may be an ideal carrier to deliver cancer-fighting drugs and nutrients to tissues and organs within the human body, according to University of Nebraska researcher Yiqi Yang. The particles are so tiny they can go to the brain and other organs much easier than other medical options, Yang told the Lincoln Journal-Star.

The nanospheres could possibly move into individual cells to deliver treatment and then simply degrade naturally in the body – synthetic alternatives have to be withdrawn. Zein is also naturally fluorescent, meaning doctors could conceivably detect and follow the nanospheres as they deliver their microscopic payload to the body. Synthetic options have to have fluorescence added, which changes their structure.

Zein can be found in corn kernels but it is more concentrated in distillers grains – a co-product of corn ethanol production that is fed to livestock and poultry. That concentrated form makes it easier and more cost effective to remove zein, a yellowish powder, from distillers grains.

Yang told the Journal-Star that should the research be successful, the demand for zein would not really impact the supply of distillers grains for animal feed. Instead, it would be a value-added option for a limited number of ethanol plants.

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