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Researchers publish new method for glycan synthesis

Tuesday, August 13, 2013 - 10:00am

Researchers at the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center announced a new methodology with broad implications for human health. A research team led by Geert-Jan Boons, Franklin Professor in the department of chemistry, recently published on the first method for synthesizing asymmetrical N-glycans:

According to the study, published in the journal Science on July 25, the approach could lead to a better understanding of how viruses and bacteria enter cells and development of therapies to fight them.

"Eventually, if we know better which glycans are present on the cell surface of healthy and disease cells, we can develop better therapies to fight cancer, influenza and many other diseases," said Geert-Jan Boons, UGA Distinguished Professor in Biochemical Sciences and the study's lead author.

Glycans are complex structures that accompany every living cell and are an essential but difficult to understand class of biopolymer. All cells are decorated with glycans, which range from those that help with cell development and immune responses to the ones involved in cancer metastasis.Glycan sequences determine biological properties of may proteins. They are sugar molecules that form simple chains or complex branching structures and are connected to nearly every protein on the surface of all living cells. Many pathogens get into cells by binding to the glycans on the cell surface-using them like a hook for cell entry and infection.

"Glycans attached to the proteins found on cell surfaces mediate numerous biological process, but determining the specific function of individual glycans has been difficult because the bulk of these sugar chains are asymmetrical, making them difficult to synthesize in the lab," said Pamela Marino of the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which partially funded the research.

Institutionally speaking, when you put all of the research components together - facilities, teams of extraordinarily talented researchers and great laboratory support - this is what can be achieved. The obvious emphasis there, because nothing is, of course, inevitable. It takes years of steady progress, failure and recommitted determination to get to the point demonstrated by Boons and his colleagues. And often mere congratulations on substantial findings and discoveries like these can seem like an understatement. But congratulate them we do, and these accomplishments do so much, far beyond the recognition they richly deserve. Additional kudos to the NIH and other federal funding agencies. The private sector is simply not the place where these breakthroughs will happen, and so this work also represents the academy at its best. And in that, we can all take pride.

Image of Boons in the lab courtesy of UGA photo services.

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