‘Sugar coatings’ on our cells can help safeguard our health
Research impact and institutes 23rd September 2016
Sugars make up the majority of biomass on earth and are often used in the food and flavour industry.
However, it is less well known that complex structures made from sugar – known as glycans – decorate the surfaces of living systems such as viruses and cells in animals, plants and bacteria.
It is these structures that allow recognition and signalling, such as the action of hormones or the recognition of invading pathogens by the immune system.
Recent examples of study in this area include comparison of glycosylation patterns on the related West Nile, dengue and zika viruses at Purdue University in the USA – structures thought to allow the pathogens to recognise and infect certain human cell types.
By understanding these interactions, scientists can develop new therapeutics, such as the sugar-mimic Tamiflu which stockpiled during the recent swine and bird flu epidemics. Tamiflu closely resembles the particular sugar used by the influenza virus to latch onto and enter certain cells for infection.
As such, its presence in the body causes the virus to bind the drug instead of cells surfaces, making it an effective antiviral agent.
A research group at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, led by Professor Sabine Flitsch, focusses on the development of synthetic and analytical tools designed to allow scientists to construct and study medically-relevant glycans in the laboratory.
Through the development of novel techniques at the institute scientist are now closer to being able to understand the mechanisms of cell-cell and pathogen-host interactions – and even synthesise molecules for the treatment of various conditions.