May 17, 2018 / All Stories

The Mysterious World of Glycans

Scientists are studying the complex sugars that can both help and hurt our health.

High School Biology

The images in your high school biology book were wrong: contrary to popular belief, the outer edges of our cells aren’t smooth at all. Zoom in with a microscope and you’ll see that our cells’ surfaces look more like a dense forest.

The "trees” in this forest are complex sugars called glycans, which play a vital role in keeping us healthy. Glycans are actually the reason you have a blood “type;" in the 1950s, researchers discovered that the sugars exposed on the surface of red blood cells determined which blood type they belonged to. Before this discovery, if you were given an infusion of a different blood type, the immune system would consider that blood foreign and do what immune systems do – attack. Discovering how glycans created fundamental changes in blood helped make medicine safer.

Missing the Forest for the Trees

But glycans aren’t always the good guys. These sugars are also complicit in most major diseases including cancer and autoimmune diseases. This dual nature makes glycans complex to understand, and they haven’t been under the scientific spotlight like proteins or DNA.

“Glycans are essential to almost every biological process in the body and yet they remain a mystery to many scientists,” said Gerard Fox, vice president, discovery, AbbVie. “If we dive deeper into the structure and role of these molecules, we may be able to better understand both the cause and treatments needed to overcome some of the world’s most vexing diseases.”

Glycans Get Their Time in the Sun (Or Under the Microscope)

As we’re learning more about the essential role of glycans to our biologic processes, scientists are now pointing their microscopes to these fascinating sugars and their mysterious potential.

Scientists have known for a while that glycans have a special relationship with the immune system. When you have the flu, the virus attaches itself to specific glycans on a cell’s surface, and then moves on to infect that cell. In cancer, the glycan coat often changes making these cancer cells invisible to the immune cells.

But what if scientists could figure out a way to stop the flu virus from latching on to glycans? Or help the immune system ignore the glycan camouflage of cancer and encourage them to refocus on destroying the cancer cells? Research is striving to achieve this goal, but the first step is getting better acquainted with glycans, and understanding what makes them tick.

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