Scientists unboil an egg, and it may be a big deal

Cracked egg
Veronique Beranger | Getty Images

Scientists have figured out how to unboil an egg.

It may seem like a mere parlor trick, but it is an achievement that could "dramatically" cut costs for cancer treatments, food production and other research in the $160 billion global biotechnology industry, according to a press release that was posted online Friday.

It also means "unboil" is now a word.

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As anyone who has ever cooked an egg knows, egg "whites" are clear until they are cooked. Egg whites are high in protein, and when they cook, the proteins start to unfold, and then fold back up in a tighter, more tangled structure. This is why they go from being clear and mucus-like to white and rubbery.

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, and Flinders University in Australia have figured out a process that can pull apart the tangled proteins, allowing them to refold and return to their original structure.

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The team used an egg to demonstrate the process, but scientists use all kinds of proteins in laboratory research that tangle and fold in similar ways during experiments—and they spend a great deal of time trying to untangle them into usable proteins.

Other methods for untangling proteins are already available, but they take days to work. The new method takes minutes, speeding the process up by a factor of thousands, according to the report.

First, the team used a substance that liquefied the cooked egg white, and then used a machine called a vortex fluidic device, developed by Colin Raston and his colleagues at Flinders, which caused the tangled protein molecules to shear and refold normally.

"I can't predict how much money it will save, but I can say this will save a ton of time, and time is money," said Gregory Weiss, UCI professor of chemistry and molecular biology & biochemistry in an interview with CNBC.

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One application Weiss is particularly passionate about is cancer treatment. One kind of treatment uses lab-made antibodies that attach to proteins in cancer cells, enabling the immune system to destroy them. Making these antibody proteins in a lab is a time consuming and expensive process. Weiss said his team's process could produce antibodies at a much faster pace for a lot less money.

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The method could also have implications for other biotechnology work, and even food production processes such as cheese making.

UCI has filed for a patent on the work, and its Office of Technology Alliances is "working with interested commercial partners", according to the report. The results have been accepted by the journal ChemBioChem and will be published next week.