03 July 2019

Sugar Atlas to Help Scientists Better Explore Viral and Bacterial Infections


Researchers at the University of Copenhagen have developed a new cell-based tool that may provide more knowledge about the way in which sugars work in the body. The tool, which is the first of its kind in the world, covers all the sugars in the body and helps scientists become more aware of their role in connection with diseases and viral infections.

A compass on a map. The map symbolises the atlas that the researchers has created
Most people understand sugar as something sweet that we eat. But in fact, the surface of every cell in the human body is decorated with complex structures of sugars. Scientists are constantly finding new ways in which the sugars affect the communication of the cells with proteins, viruses and other cells, and thus what makes us sick or healthy.

Now, researchers from the Copenhagen Center for Glycomics at the University of Copenhagen have developed a new tool that will speed up the understanding of the importance of sugars in the human body.

’As the first in the world, we have produced a large panel of human cells that covers all the sugars we have in the body. We and other researchers can now use our tool as a kind of atlas which will be a good indication of to what the sugars mean to our cells, and thus to disease and health’, says Yoshiki Narimatsu, Assistant Professor at Copenhagen Center for Glycomics.

Just Like Studying Flowers
Normally, scientists will produce sugars chemically and research them individually. The unique thing about the new atlas is that it consists of genetically engineered human cells. This makes the research more environmentally friendly, because the cells are a sustainable resource, and you do not need the same amount of chemical substances. Furthermore, it makes sense from a research point of view to study combinations of sugars in their natural environment.

’If you imagine that the sugars on the surface of the cell are flowers in a meadow, then the old-fashioned method is a bit like picking a flower and studying it in the laboratory. Our new atlas with human cells is like studying the flowers in the meadow in the environment where they grow and develop. Simply said, it will give us stronger research results’, says Hiren Joshi, Assistant Professor at the Copenhagen Center for Glycomics.

The scientists have created the atlas by means of gene editing, using the CRISPR technology. They remove and add those genes in the cell that are responsible for the production of sugars, thus enabling them to control the process meticulously.

Potential in Relation to Viral Infections
The tool may be used already now, and the researchers generally feel very confident that it will be used to show new correlations with diseases in the human body. But they are particularly hopeful when it comes to future research into viral infections.

‘About 80 percent of viral and bacterial infections bind to the sugars on the outside of our cells. Therefore, we are quite confident that our tool may be used to understand viral infections much better than today. Probably, we will also be able to use it to develop innovative treatments that target the sugars. That is certainly the hope’, says Henrik Clausen, Head of the Research Team and Professor at the Copenhagen Center for Glycomics.

The study is supported by the Lundbeck Foundation. For more information, please check their website.

Read the entire study ‘An Atlas of Human Glycosylation Pathways Enables Display of the Human Glycome by Gene Engineered Cells’ on Molecular Cell.

Professor Henrik Clausen
+45 20 14 55 37

Press Officer Mathias Traczyk
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