Athens, Ga. – The National Institutes of Health has awarded the University of Georgia a five-year, $8.3 million grant to further its research into the role cell-surface sugars known as glycans play in the development of stem cells and cancer cells. The grant allows UGA to continue its role as a National Center for Research Resources Center for Biomedical Glycomics.
“The UGA Complex Carbohydrate Research Center is one of the few comprehensive facilities in the world equipped to study the role of glycans in human health,” said Michael Pierce, the principal investigator on the grant and Mudter Professor in Cancer Research. “With this grant, our team will continue to develop state of the art technology to analyze cell-surface markers of stem cells and cancer cells.”
Senior investigators on the grant are Steve Dalton, Kelley Moremen, Michael Tiemeyer, Ron Orlando, Lance Wells, and Parastoo Azadi.
While genomics seeks to understand an organism’s genes and proteomics concentrates on proteins, the field of glycomics focuses on the sugars that adorn cells and proteins and the role these sugars play in processes as diverse as development, the immune response and the formation and spread of tumors.
“Cell surface sugars offer tremendous untapped potential as molecular fingerprints that can distinguish cancer cells from normal cells and stem cells from other cell types, and so on,” said David Lee, UGA vice president for research. “Progress in this area promises early diagnostic tests as well as new therapeutic targets and vaccines. Yet cell-surface glycans are extraordinarily challenging molecules to characterize, requiring major investments in highly specialized technology and expertise. Of course, this is precisely why their potential has not yet been realized.
“Owing to the foresight of both former and present UGA leaders, we are fortunate to have the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center, which is one of only two or three organized entities in the world with the requisite know-how,” Lee added. “I am confident that with the leadership of the CCRC, UGA will have significant impacts on human health in areas such as cancer, diabetes and infectious diseases.”
Pierce explained that while DNA is made up of just four nucleic acids in a double helix and proteins are made up of 20 amino acids arranged in a linear chain, human glycans can be comprised of more than ten sugar building blocks arranged in different branching patterns, with each sugar subject to additional modifications. “The best way to think of it is like branches on a tree,” said Pierce, who also directs the UGA Cancer Center. “Not only do you have to figure out how many branches there are, you also have to figure out which sugars are present on each branch, and then where each branch starts and stops.”
UGA became an NIH-designated Center for Biomedical Glycomics in 2003 after receiving a $6.2 million grant from the agency. Since then, UGA researchers have used mouse cells to understand the role glycans play in the differentiation of stem cells into more specialized cells and to find specific glycans that have the potential to serve as markers for stem cells and for various cancers. With the latest grant, Pierce and his colleagues will follow the same line of research, but now using human cells.
He explained that understanding the role of glycans in the differentiation of stem cells allows researchers to better identify cells that are destined to become heart cells, nerve cells or other tissues. When unique glycan markers for cancer cells are found, researchers can develop antibodies and drugs that specifically target cells bearing these glycans while sparing healthy tissue. If some of the marker glycans attached to proteins enter the bloodstream, researchers have the potential to develop blood tests that allow tumors to be diagnosed early, when treatment is most likely to be effective. At UGA, researchers are studying the fluid secreted by the pancreas to determine if subtle changes in glycans can herald the presence of pancreatic cancer, for example.
The UGA researchers expect to generate tremendous amounts of data on cell-surface glycans and are also developing new data analysis techniques and software to share their findings with labs around the world.
In conjunction with the NIH grant, the Georgia Research Alliance, a public-private partnership that supports university research with the goal of stimulating economic growth, has awarded UGA $750,000 as matching funds for equipment purchases. Such funding is critical, Pierce said, since a single mass spectrometer (a machine that allows scientists to determine the structure of molecules such as glycans) can cost more than a million dollars.
“Both the NIH grant and the GRA matching funds are engines that drive our development of new research methods and technologies,” Pierce said. “And we then use that technology to better understand stem cells, cancer and other diseases.”
To learn more, see the following sites:
NCRR Center for Biomedical Glycomics
UGA Complex Carbohydrate Research Center
The UGA Cancer Center