Big news: A University of Nebraska-Lincoln chemistry professor has discovered a new form of …

Ice.

Huh? Who cares, right? It’s not like the cubes that pop out of your freezer are going to look any different.

Fair enough, but keep reading.

The new ice form — created in high-pressure nanotubes inside UNL laboratories — could hold clues about the way proteins in the human body misalign to cause Alzheimer’s, mad cow and other deadly neurological illnesses.

“Then we could make new drugs. We could cure diseases. That would be wonderful,” said Xiao Cheng Zeng, who led the discovery published in this week’s online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This is cutting-edge research. It’s helping us understand the whole, grand picture.”

Zeng and his two-person team made the discovery in August after a year of nonstop work, he said.

Other top research universities around the world have been racing to find new ice forms, Zeng said, and his team’s discovery helps put Nebraska at the forefront of the research.

“Now, this really puts us on the map.”

Why it’s important:

Scientists still don’t fully understand the way water molecules arrange themselves when they’re exposed to freezing temperatures and turn to ice.

This arrangement, called self-assembly, parallels the way proteins inside the human brain arrange themselves.

It occurs elsewhere in nature, too. Birds, for example, self-assemble when they fly in a V-shape.

Human protein self-assembly keeps the brain and body functioning normally. But when self-assembly goes wrong — like when a long necklace is twisted into knots — the body’s molecular functions are thrown off, planting the seed for such diseases as Alzheimer’s.

Until scientists understand how and why self-assembly occurs, they won’t be able to cure those diseases, Zeng said.

So they’re starting with fundamental matter.

Once they find answers about the way water self-assembles, they may find answers about protein self-assembly, Zeng said.

That could lead to discoveries on preventing, slowing and curing deadly diseases.

“This could have huge medical implications.”

Prem Paul, UNL’s vice chancellor for research, stands fully behind Zeng’s work.

“This is a major discovery,” Paul said. “Not only do we recognize this, but others do.

“I’m very proud of (Zeng.) He is one of the best at the university.”

A cure for Alzheimer’s is still a long way off, Zeng said, but he believes his research holds great promise.

“Right now, we’re at the beginning,” he said. “We’re just overwhelmed by nature.

“Now let’s get the momentum and let’s move forward.”

Reach Melissa Lee at 473-2682 or mlee@journalstar.com.