Decoding sugars: Harnessing glycomics to fight infectious diseases

Posted: June 13, 2023

GlycoNet scientists are expanding our knowledge of sugars to engineer new health solutions.

With the increasing threat of antimicrobial resistance presenting a global health challenge, scientists are exploring innovative and sustainable ways to fight infectious diseases. One exciting frontier is glycomics, the study of sugars and their functions in all living organisms. GlycoNet, one of the world’s leaders in glycomics research and innovation, is a federally funded pan-Canadian research network that uniquely brings together national glycomics expertise, bolsters collaboration, and supports the development of solutions to improve health and quality of life for Canadians. Through glycomics, GlycoNet researchers are developing novel strategies and technologies to tackle infectious diseases without fuelling antimicrobial resistance.

The surfaces of many pathogens are adorned with intricate sugar structures, or glycans. These glycans are often unique to each pathogen, serving as their distinctive biological fingerprints. Researchers are studying the glycans specific to different diseases to create new vaccines that stimulate the immune system to recognize and eliminate the pathogen. For example, GlycoNet researchers from McGill University and Dalhousie University have partnered with government and industry to conduct a Phase 1 clinical trial of a glycan-based vaccine against Hia (Haemophilus influenzae serotype A), a bacterium that has been found to cause severe infections predominantly in Indigenous northern communities.

In contrast to antibiotics, vaccines provide a more enduring and sustainable solution in the fight against infectious diseases. GlycoNet researchers from the University of Montreal, University of Alberta, and Academia Sinica, are now working on a glycan-based vaccine against Streptococcus suis, a prevalent cause of bacterial infection and death in piglets. With no vaccine against S. suis currently available, antimicrobial resistance remains a growing problem that stresses the need for alternative solutions. Controlling S. suis infection in swine via methods other than antibiotics is beneficial from both an economic standpoint and a One-Health perspective. In addition to impacting livestock health and resulting in significant economic loss to Canada’s swine industry, S. suis poses risk as a zoonotic pathogen as it can be transmitted from pigs to humans.

Another promising application of glycomics is in the advancement of glycan-based therapeutics. For instance, biofilms provide a strong barrier around bacteria or fungi, often making it difficult for the immune system to fight off infection—even with high doses of antibiotics. GlycoNet researchers at McGill University and SickKids studied biofilms caused by the Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacterium—a common cause of lung infections—and found that sugars played a key role in holding together the biofilm’s structure. Using a specific enzyme to target these sugars, they have developed a potential therapeutic for biofilm-based infections.

Glycans are also involved in the synthesis of nucleoside analogues—a class of agents that include antivirals, cancer treatments, and other RNA therapeutics. However, synthesis of nucleoside analogues has typically presented a number of challenges and limitations. GlycoNet scientists from Simon Fraser University created a new synthetic platform that facilitates the production of these nucleoside analogues and enables them to deliver customized nucleoside analogues to clients, supporting the discovery and development of new therapeutics.

The innovations emerging from glycomics signal an important chapter in the ongoing fight against infectious diseases and the growing challenge of antimicrobial resistance. Through glycomics-based vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics, we are building a more diverse and sustainable toolkit to confront present and future health challenges. However, further investment in glycomics remains critical to unlock its full potential for transformative advancements in human, animal, and environmental health.

GlycoNet researcher Dr. Brian Ward, Professor at McGill University (pictured in the first image), recently presented on a panel at Research Canada’s Parliamentary Health Research Caucus event: Game-Changing Research and Innovation in Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) and Emerging Pandemic Threats. Dr. Ward discussed how vaccines, such as the one being developed against Hia, can help prevent AMR.

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