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Vol. LXIII, No. 15
July 22, 2011

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Glycans Take Stage at Glycosciences Research Day

Glycosciences Research Day featured a poster competition with over 60 abstracts.
Glycosciences Research Day featured a poster competition with over 60 abstracts.

Proteins, DNA and RNA tend to get the spotlight, but other molecules—including sugars—are just as critical to health.

Scientists have studied the structure of sugars for more than a century, but about 25 years ago glycobiology began to emerge as a field focused on the functional aspects of glycans, also known as complex carbohydrates.

Interest in the subject brought more than 250 registrants to Kirschstein Auditorium on June 15 for NIH and FDA’s 4th annual Glycosciences Research Day. Through symposia, poster sessions and roundtable discussions over lunch, the meeting highlighted the role of glycans in conditions as diverse as malaria, cancer metastasis and muscular dystrophy.

This year’s turnout was a record high, which is fitting for a field that has been growing rapidly, said co-chair Dr. Daron Freedberg of FDA. He emphasized that the goal of the day-long meeting was “cross-pollination” of ideas among researchers from different avenues of glycobiology.

Virtually all cells have a glycan coating. For instance, a sugary shield covers most of HIV, but researchers have identified a small, glycan-free zone on its surface that looks like a prime target for an antibody to bind and neutralize the virus.

Often, glycans are attached to proteins on the cell’s outer membrane. These composites, called glycoproteins, help cells send and receive chemical signals. The meeting highlighted a role for glycoproteins in colon cancer cell migration and in the malaria parasite’s attachment to human cells.

Dr. Gerardo Vasta, a biochemist at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute in Baltimore, discussed how the immune system recognizes invaders— viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites—by the sugars on their surfaces. Vasta’s work with zebrafish shows that certain glycoproteins are also important in early development, triggering the growth of the heart and spine.

Dr. Christopher Campbell, an NIGMS Pharmacology Research Associate postdoctoral fellow working in a lab at NCI, found that a man’s immune response to a particular sugar is a good predictor of how well he will respond to a vaccine for prostate cancer.

Events like Glycosciences Research Day have wide-ranging potential for vaccine development, biomarker discovery and biotheraputics. Dr. Ronald Schnaar of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, who co-chaired the first session, noted that many drugs contain glycans and interact with glycoproteins—“so you’ve got to understand sugars to make biological drugs.”

In addition to glycobiology research grants, NIGMS funds the Consortium for Functional Glycomics (CFG), a major collaborative effort that is “establishing the necessary tools, databases and research teams to move the field of glycobiology forward,” said NIGMS program director Dr. Pamela Marino. The CFG will hold its 2011 meeting at NIH on July 27-29. See for details. NIHRecord Icon

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