When you think of sugar, you probably think of the sweet, white, crystalline table sugar that you use to make cookies or sweeten your coffee. But did you know that within our body, simple sugar molecules can be connected together to create powerful structures that have recently been found to be linked to health problems, including cancer, aging and autoimmune diseases. These long sugar chains that cover each of our cells are called glycans, and according to the National Academy of Sciences, creating a map of their location and structure will usher us into a new era of modern medicine. This is because the human glycome – the entire collection of sugars within our body – houses yet-to-be-discovered glycans with the potential to aid physicians in diagnosing and treating their patients.
Thanks to the worldwide attention garnered by the 2003 completion of the Human Genome Project, most people have heard about DNA, genomics and even proteomics – the study of proteins. But the study of glycans, also known as glycomics, is about 20 years behind that of other fields. One reason for this lag is that scientists have not developed the tools to rapidly identify glycan structures and their attachment sites on people’s cells. The “sugar coat” has been somewhat of a mystery. Until now, that is. While most laboratories focus on cellular or molecular research, our lab is dedicated to developing technology to rapidly characterize glycan structures and their attachment sites. Our ultimate goal is to catalog the hundreds of thousands of sugars and their locations on various cell types, and then to use this information to tailor medical therapies to each individual. Why do we care about glycans? In the future, it is likely that analysis of an individual’s glycans will be used to predict our risk for developing diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or even food allergies. This is because glycome alterations can be specifically tied to particular disease states. Also, biological processes like aging are linked to inflammation in our glycome. It remains to be tested if reversing these changes can help prevent disease, or even slow aging – an intriguing possibility.