Research into Sugar Molecules Provides New Understanding of Brain Disorders – University of Copenhagen

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22 June 2017

Research into Sugar Molecules Provides New Understanding of Brain Disorders

Brain disorders

Through a new study, researchers at the University of Copenhagen are able to link errors in the attachment of sugar to the cells with brain disorders and possibly cancer.

Sugar molecules have a great influence on many bodily functions and processes. When sugar attaches to proteins, the body’s building blocks, it greatly affects how well the cells function. If errors occur in this process, it can lead to disorders.

Through a new study, researchers at the basic research Center for Glycomics at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, University of Copenhagen, have gained new insight into how sugar attaches to a specific group of proteins. The system is a new version of the well-known process called protein glycosylation.

Can Be Related to Congenital Brain Disorders
The new protein glycosylation involves a large family of proteins called cadherins, which are located in the cell membrane and play a main role in tissue development and structure. Cadherins form the point of contact between cells, but if errors occur during the attachment of sugar molecules it can lead to brain disorders and perhaps even cancer.

’Cadherins are some of the most important cell interaction molecules that exist. It is a large and versatile group of proteins that controls how cells and tissue are connected. Practically, we know that errors in this type of glycosylation of cadherins are directly related to developmental defects in the brain, such as cobblestone lissencephaly and hereditary impaired hearing. In addition, we also expect this new type of glycosylation to have a large impact on cancer, where the cadherins are some of the main molecules’, says PhD Ida Signe Bohse Larsen, who is behind the research project.

Surprising Discovery
Since 2013 researchers have known that the cadherins in fact are glycosylated, but it was not until they, using CRISPR technology, removed the enzymes they believed were responsible for attaching sugar to the proteins that they made a surprising discovery.

‘When we explored the proteins in more detail we were able to see that they, contrary to expectations, were still glycosylated. Sugar could still be found on them. This led us to a new, important system in the cells’, says Ida Signe Bohse Larsen.

More Fine-Tuning than Expected
According to the researchers, this new, independent type of glycosylation may indicate that these processes in the cells are more specific than previously thought.

‘Glycosylation of proteins fine-tunes the function of the proteins. Here we have discovered a connection between congenital brain disorders and reduced glycosylation of cadherins. This discovery opens up to entirely new perspectives on how we, as an organism, fine-tune and regulate the function of proteins. If this group of proteins has its own unique system for attaching sugar, it is not unlikely that other, smaller groups also have their own systems’, says Ida Signe Bohse Larsen, who will continue to research this type of glycosylation and its significance to cancer, among other things.

Read more about the new discoveries in the Journal of Biochemistry, where the article has been selected for ‘Editors Pick’.