Panel: Sugars really matter in fighting human disease

GlycoNet hosted a panel discussion, Why Sugars Matter in Fighting Disease, at the University of Alberta on Nov. 1.

by Bernie Poitras

Sugars play a pivotal role in solving complex human health issues including heart, infectious, and neurodegenerative diseases.

That was the consensus among a panel of carbohydrate experts at a public forum on November 1 in Edmonton, hosted by GlycoNet. The panel discussion, Why Sugars Matter in Fighting Disease, explored the role and significance of carbohydrates in fighting disease.

Panel members included experts from cardiac medicine, chemistry, oncology, infectious diseases, carbohydrate synthesis, and cell and tissue transplantation. Author and former Daily Planet host Mr. Jay Ingram MCd and moderated the event.

“Sugars are essential building blocks of every living cell in our body,” says Dr. Todd Lowary, GlycoNet Scientific Director. “They can regulate the way cells communicate with one another and the more we know about how they interact in our body, the better we can treat diseases. This has critical implications in the biotechnology industry.”

“Sugars are the first point of contact with other cells, the first line of defense against bacterial infections, they help tune the immune system and they define the outward facing parts of cells,” adds Mr. Jay Ingram.

Ingram noted the complete list of tasks that carbohydrates perform are still largely unknown and that any changes in those molecules have consequences for human health.

Dr. Lori West, a GlycoNet Investigator and Director of the Canadian National Transplant Research Program, explained that carbohydrates play a significant role in the success of organ and tissue transplantation.

“All cells are coated with carbohydrates that determine the blood type of an individual. Dogma tells us that the donor and recipient must be matched for successful transplant outcomes. However, we found that this is not true for infants,” says West. “Over the past several years we’ve been digging into the science behind our findings, supported by GlycoNet and others, and are using that knowledge to develop better tools to inform and follow incompatible transplants.”

Another area where carbohydrates can make a significant impact is in infectious diseases. As the number of infectious disease outbreaks and antibiotic resistance rise worldwide, researchers look for ways to improve the effectiveness of antibiotics.

“In nature, bacteria preferably congregate and form a biofilm. A biofilm is a community of bacteria in a self-produced slime-like substance. A major component of biofilm are sugars the bacteria make. Bacteria in biofilms are up to a thousand times more tolerant to antibiotics,” explains Ms. Erum Razvi, a GlycoNet Trainee and PhD Candidate at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

Razvi’s research is investigating how bacteria make sugars and identifying a molecule that prevents the sugar from being released outside the bacteria, thereby preventing biofilm formation and making antibiotics more effective.

Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, Dr. Mona Nemer, brought a national perspective to the discussion encouraging bioscience organizations to focus on taking their basic research all the way to commercialization.

“GlycoNet is a great platform to bring scientists together to focus on a specific area of research,” says Nemer, also a GlycoNet Investigator. “We need to capitalize on our strengths in bioscience, including glycomics. We need to make sure biosciences is a source of great national pride in Canada in the years to come – to put us in the top five nations in the word in this area. We need to ensure we have the capacity building, the infrastructure, and that we attract investments from around the world.”

GlyCa BioSciences, a start-up company based on GlycoNet-funded technology, is an example of a company translating a technology that bridges oncology and glycomics for new cancer diagnostics. The company uses carbohydrates as a cancer biomarker to detect and/or predict high-risk prostate cancer with a simple blood test.

“We know that all cells are coated in sugars but that cancer cells are coated in different sugars,” says GlyCa BioSciences Co-founder and GlycoNet Investigator, Dr. Karla Williams. “By knowing what they are, we can find them in the blood of patients who are at risk of specific cancers. Looking at sugars in the blood can tell us a lot about someone’s state of health.”

While still a developing field of study, glycomics-based research has led to the development of commercial drugs such as Tamiflu, an antiviral medication used to treat and prevent seasonal flu, and Precose, a drug to treat diabetes.

“Tonight was a great celebration of GlycoNet successes and educating people about the role of sugars in developing new drugs and diagnostics, and making clear the commercial potential of glycomics research,” concludes Mr. Frank Gleeson, Chair, GlycoNet Board of Directors.

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