GlycoNet team helps find way to break through armour of dangerous biofilms Staff
Published Saturday, June 24, 2017 10:00PM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, June 24, 2017 11:30PM EDT

Not many Canadians have ever heard of “biofilms,” but doctors and infectious diseases experts know them well. The slimy, glue-like sheets of bacteria or fungi can grow on tissues or wounds, forming a protective layer around themselves that make it difficult to kill the infections.

Now Canadian researchers say they may have found a way of fighting biofilms by breaking up their protective coatings.

Not all biofilms are dangerous; there is likely a biofilm of plaque on your teeth right now, if it’s been a while since you last brushed.

But some biofilms are dangerous and can progress into serious infections, says [GlycoNet scientist] Dr. Don Sheppard, the director of the division of Infectious Diseases at the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal.

“They can attach to skin and wounds. They can attach to prosthetic devices, like IV catheters, urinary catheters, the artificial hips that we put inside people. And they can adhere to those surfaces with a strength that exceeds that of crazy glue,” he says.

Because biofilms work together to form a kind of armour around themselves, colonies of bacteria or fungi can easily fight off immune system attacks, and even high doses of antibiotics. That leaves doctors with little in their arsenal to fight them, says Lynne Howell, a senior scientist in in molecular medicine at SickKids Hospital in Toronto.

“The fact we don’t have any way to prevent or treat them is a major problem,” she said.

In fact, it’s estimated that more than 70 per cent of hospital-acquired infections are associated with biofilms.

Scientists around the world have been struggling to design new weapons against biofilms. Now, Canadian researchers think they’ve found a way of breaking through a biofilm’s protective coating, using enzymes.

[Another GlycoNet researcher, Dr. Lynne] Howell, who was part of the team working on the new approach, says the enzymes help to “bust up” a biofilm’s shell, or matrix, creating holes that allow antibiotics or the immune system to kill the bacteria or fungi.

What’s more, the enzyme technology can also prevent biofilms from forming at all.

“This is the first time we have taken a big step forward in getting a new therapy based on something that we didn’t know existed five years ago,” says Sheppard.

Sheppard and Howell’s team conducted their research over four years, focusing on two of the most common organisms responsible for serious lung infections: a bacterium called Pseudomonas aeruginosa and a fungus called aspergillus fumigatus.

They discovered that enzymes called glycoside hydrolases could eat through all the sugar molecules that glue biofilms together.

Results of their research are available in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers are now beginning to test the enzymes in animals before beginning testing in patients.

With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip.

GlycoNet scientists attend first annual trilateral glycomics symposium

By Chardelle Prevatt – January 20, 2017

Taiwan Meeting jpg
Glycomics, or the study of carbohydrates in biological systems, is experiencing a surge of activity due to the many ways in which carbohydrates impact human health. In December 2016, GlycoNet Scientific Director Dr. Todd Lowary and three GlycoNet scientists attended an International Union in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (IUBMB)-sponsored symposium entitled “IUBMB Frontiers in Glycoscience: Host-pathogen Interactions” at Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan. At the event, GlycoNet scientists—Drs. Sachiko Sato, Don Sheppard, and Chris Whitfield—delivered talks related to glycomics and antimicrobials.

“The meeting and interactions were a tremendous success. It was a great opportunity to develop closer ties between the glycomics communities in Canada, Australia, and Taiwan,” Dr. Lowary said. “We are continuing to have discussions on further research collaborations between the three communities, with a particular focus on trainee research exchanges and core services.”

The event was the first of four annual international symposia focused on glycoscience. These events are designed to promote collaborative research between Canada, Australia, and Taiwan with each year highlighting a different glycomics theme. The symposium will be held again in Taiwan in 2017, Australia in 2018, and Canada in 2019.

“It makes sense that we join forces,” Dr. Whitfield added. “These three countries are located around the Pacific Rim, they are approximately the same population size, and all have thriving glycomics communities. We can learn a great deal from each other.”

For more information about the IUBMB Frontiers in Glycoscience: Host-pathogen Interactions Symposium, click here.

About GlycoNet
The Canadian Glycomics Network (GlycoNet) is a pan-Canadian, multidisciplinary research network aiming to deliver solutions to important health issues and improve the quality of life of Canadians through the study of glycomics. GlycoNet is funded by the Networks of Centres of Excellence, a Government of Canada program that supports large-scale, academic-led research networks to build research capacity and accelerate the creation of new knowledge in a specific research area.

The International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (IUBMB), founded in 1955, unites biochemists and molecular biologists in 77 countries that belong to the Union as an Adhering Body or Associate Adhering Body which is represented as a biochemical society, a national research council or an academy of sciences. The Union is devoted to promoting research and education in biochemistry and molecular biology throughout the world and gives particular attention to areas where the subject is still in its early development.

About Academia Sinica
Academia Sinica is a leading academic institution in Taipei, Taiwan, China. Founded initially in 1928 to promote scholarly research and undertake academic research in the three research disciplines of mathematics and physical sciences, life sciences, and humanities and social sciences, the Academia now has 24 research institutes and seven research centres, with about 900 research fellows and technical staff and 600 post-doctoral research fellows.