Sugar based therapy gets boost – University of Copenhagen

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03 April 2014

Sugar based therapy gets boost

Medicinal chemistry

According to Disney’s Mary Poppins a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. But sugar, disease and drug development is about to enter a zone where even single molecules of sugar can have revolutionary effects on ailments and their cures. Department of Chemistry professor Ola Blixt has recently shown how ovarian cancer diagnosis can be improved by screening for specific biological sugars instead of the current screenings for proteins. In the coming period he and his group is planning to expand that work dramatically. And they need students to assist them.

Professor Ola Blixt in his Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen lab.

Sick sugars involved in multiple diseases

Sugar molecules clinging to proteins and cell-surfaces are involved in just about any kind of disease you would care to mention. They facilitate interactions between bacteria, bacteria toxins and viruses with different types of cells and signaling molecules. So finding ways to introduce to, modify or locate sugars in the human body could be key to a whole host of innovative forms of diagnostics and drugs.

Cancer, viral diseases and malaria

Blixt recently received international funds for two new PhD- and two bachelor students working on projects in the field of sugar-based diagnostics and therapeutics. One, PhD student Nina Persson, was recently awarded a Marie Curie grant position to develop better diagnosis of gastric cancer, whereas PhD student Ebbe Engholm will explore new synthetic sugar chemistries, to clog up the receptors of viruses, so they can no longer enter the cells where they would wreak infectious destruction. Along these lines Blixt is also planning to hire a Postdoc for a project to develop treatment for severe malaria.

"We hope to produce artificial cells!

Ola Blixt

Professor of glycochemistry

Department of Chemistry

University of Copenhagen

Not impossible, but almost

In addition to all these projects aiming at application Blixt is also entering into a collaboration to do what he describes as “seriously far-fetched”. He and his associates want to enable fundamental biophysics research by doing what has never been done before:

We hope to produce artificial cells. Perhaps even artificial organelles”, says Ola Blixt.

Multinational, multidisciplinary

The project requires the combined efforts of experts from all across Europe. Specialists in protein engineering, lipidomics ,biophysics and Blixt’s adepts in sugar chemistry synthesis. But if they succeed they will open the gates for unprecedented insight. Not only into how drugs enter cells but also where the drugs go after passing through the cell membrane. This is something that cannot easily be discovered with current technologies.

And multi-funded

The funding making all these projects possible come from sources as diverse as the EU FP7 programmes GlycoBioM, Immunocan, ERASynBio and GastricGlycoexplorer and the Swedish funding bodies Vetenskapsrädet, and Stiftelsen för Strategisk Forskning. With so much going on all at once, Blixt hopes to attract a number of MSc/BSc students who might help to solve the many puzzles posed by biological sugars.