Campus News

$7.4M NIH grant will be used to study building blocks of life

Geert-Jan Boons is the Franklin Professor of Chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences.

A team of senior researchers at UGA has received a five-year $7.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to help better understand one of the most fundamental building blocks of life.

They are tiny chains of sugar molecules called glycans, and they cover the surface of every living cell in the human body-providing the necessary machinery for those cells to communicate, replicate and survive. But they’re not all good. Glycans support the function of all cells, including those that cause cancer, viral and bacterial infections, diabetes and cardiovascular disorders.

This makes them an attractive target for new treatments, and the experiments supported by this grant promise to speed the development of new, more effective therapies for many of humanity’s most insidious diseases and increase understanding of the body’s most basic cellular functions.

“We know that glycans are involved in almost every aspect of health and disease, but we need to figure out what controls glycan behavior-the machinery that creates glycans and places them on the surface of cells,” said Geert-Jan Boons, the principal investigator for the project and a researcher at UGA’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center.

Scientists estimate that there are more than 7,000 unique glycan structures in human cells, but they do not have a strong understanding of the processes involved in creating this vast diversity. Therefore, the UGA team has made identifying and describing the various enzymes that drive glycan formation a central priority of its research.

Co-principal investigator Kelley Moremen has developed a new method to generate these critical enzymes in the laboratory, which the entire research group will use in its experiments. This catalog of enzymes will give researchers new insights into glycan formation and the processes involved in disease development.

“If we can figure out this machinery, we can discover ways to interfere with it, which opens the door for new therapeutics,” Moremen said.

The research team is composed of five professors from the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences: Boons, Franklin Professor of Chemistry; Moremen, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology; James Prestegard, professor and GRA Eminent Scholar of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology; Richard Steet, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology; and Lance Wells, associate professor and GRA Distinguished Investigator of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

The project is funded through a grant from the National Institutes of Health under award number P01 GM107012-01.