Unboiling Eggs and Making Medicine Local

A few truths. Winning a Nobel prize is pretty hard. You can’t clap with one hand.  You can’t unboil an egg.

Well winning a Nobel prize is probably pretty hard. The one hand thing though? Everyone knows you can clap with one hand. And of course eggs can be unboiled with a bit of vortex fluid action to do unfold some proteins. You all knew about vortex fluidic tech right?

(In a second I’m going to go to the next little heading, but I’m going to point right at the bit where you noticed I’m slightly misquoting  “you can’t unscramble an egg” to suit my purposes. Let’s just awkwardly nod in the direction of that little switch and move on in a spirit of togetherness.)


Now you don’t need to cry over spilt eggs. Wait, that’s wrong too.

Unfolding Your Way to the Ig Nobels

We can’t say if unboiling an egg will warrant a Nobel of course but it has already garnered an Ig Nobel. If you’re not familiar with the Ig Nobels they are bestowed yearly to celebrate some of the more improbable bits of research. They’re designed to celebrate research that makes you “laugh and then think”.

If you’ve got a minute you can work your way through a list of winners, all the way from the first recorded case of homosexual necrophilia in a particular kind of duck to the Italian team who demonstrated mathematically that organisations would become more efficient if they promote people at random (2008, Management Prize) or the group who published the seminal work on treating uncontrollable nosebleeds by packing the nose with strips of cured pork (2014).

Bacon. Is there anything it can’t do?

Now when the Vortex Fluidic Device (VFD) hit the news it was for that impressive and seemingly implausible ability to unboil an egg. It’s not that simple of course. When you boil an egg, you rearrange the proteins. They tangle differently.

The team involved here added something to a boiled egg they prepared earlier to liquefy the egg white. They then used the VFD to spin the fluid incredibly fast. As the liquid spreads out layers of different spin speed are created. The shearing forces between those films encourages folding and refolding of the proteins until they pretty much go back to what they once were.

It’s easy to see how it fulfils the brief of making you laugh. What about the making you think?

The Serious Bit

This technique isn’t mostly about food rejuvenation. Early in the piece the researchers mentioned that there would be applications for pharmaceuticals and biomedical areas. Drug development is mentioned. Cancer drugs in particular with exciting stuff already released on that.

Well the team has subsequently published something that isn’t so much about cancer. It’s about local anaesthetics. Y’know the things in the cocaine family that make you numb before the dentist does their bit.

Why go there so early? It’s not exactly cancer. Well I expect it wasn’t made a priority on the basis of world significance but there’s still a lot that can be gained.

Perhaps an example. Every couple of years a team of colleagues heads to a rural spot in India to fix up feet. Feet like this.


Bilateral congenital talipes equinovarus. Also known as clubfeet.

Fixing up feet like that in that setting requires a fair bit of cutting. Wedges get taken out of bones. Or bones just get removed.

A key part of making kids comfortable for that is the use of local anaesthetics and not just the cream on the skin that’s become popular for making a tattoo easier. Local anaesthetic administered more centrally (either in the fluid around the spinal cord or in the space just outside the spinal cord, an epidural) makes the lower half of the body numb for a while.

When we do those trips we tend to take as much of the supply with us as we can. That’s because we can’t always rely on local stocks. Run out and the operating stops. On one occasion local strikes and roadblocks prevented all restocking in our little outpost. Replenishing our local anaesthetic supply relied on a guy and a motorbike finding his way through a tea plantation overnight. (For reasons I can’t quite understand, that adventure seems like the rider needs to have a scarf. Definitely a scarf.)

A glimpse of a future where some medicines might be locally produced with a device about as big as a suitcase is fairly exciting. No more supply chain to fret over. Drug production in real time where it’s needed.

That sort of technology is way more exciting for medicine everywhere than the latest surgical robot. It’s a bit like repurposing drones to deliver medical supplies to spots where there aren’t roads. Technology that promotes better access to healthcare will provide far more benefit to far more people than the newest generation machine that goes bing.

And if you can recycle a few eggs along the way, that’s just a bonus.



There’s more on unboiling eggs here via Scientific American. Or you can watch this video version.

The image by Daniel Novta is unchanged and I found it on Flickr. It is under Creative Commons.





One thought on “Unboiling Eggs and Making Medicine Local

  1. Pingback: The Number | The Flying PhD

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