When thinking of sugar, people tend to instantly think of sweet, white, unhealthy crystalline table sugar that is used to make cookies or sweeten coffee. But did you know that within our bodies we have simple sugar molecules that can connect together creating powerful structures? These structures were linked to health problems like cancer and autoimmune diseases. The sugar chains cover every single cell in our body and are called glycans. By creating a map of their location and structure, the National Academy of Sciences believes this will assist us into a new era of modern medicine.

The completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 helped garner attention worldwide and now more people hold some understanding of DNA, genomics and even proteomics. The study of glycans however, is less researched and is nearly 20 years behind that of other fields. Scientists are not developing the tools needed to rapidly identify glycan structures and their attachment sites throughout the cells. Cracking the sugar code has been quite a mystery until now.

While many laboratories tend to focus on cellular or molecular research, nutritional and clinical glycomics researcher Lebrilla League is dedicated to developing technology to rapidly characterize glycan structures and their attachment sites according to CNBC. Its ultimate goal is “to catalog the hundreds of thousands of sugars and their locations on various cell types, and then to use this information to tailor medical therapies to each individual.”

The analysis of an individual’s glycans in the future will assist in predicting the risk of developing diseases such as  rheumatoid arthritiscancer or even food allergies. Analyzing this information helps because glycome alterations can be specifically tied to particular disease states. Aging is also linked to inflammation in our glycome although, it remains to be tested if reversing these changes will help prevent disease or even assist in slowing the aging process.

The primary job of glycans is to modify the proteins and fats that sit on the surface of cells. Every cell within the human body is covered with a collection of glycans which are assembled using various sugars including glucose, mannose, galactose, sialic acid, glucosamine and frucose as building blocks. By detecting the type of sugar present, our immune cells can better identify other cells as a friend or enemy due to bacteria holding sugars on their surface which are never seen on human cells. The pathogen’s sugars are detected by the immune system notifying the cell that the bacteria is ‘foreign.’

New research also revealed that glycans play a role in the development of autoimmune diseases such as  rheumatoid arthritis and autoimmune pancreatitis. The research provided comes at little to no shock since glycans directly influence the function of immune cells. Our immune cells portray a ‘defense system’ by identifying and destroying foreign invaders such as harmful bacteria or viruses. But when your body mistakenly identifies your own cells as the enemy, it begins attacking itself which is where autoimmunity is born. The Autoimmune deficiency can even respond negatively to glycans present. For example, the abnormal immune response can mistake “self” glycans as if they were ‘foreign’ molecules.

Glycans in our food can also trigger immune responses. Several studies linked the consumption of red meat to cause diseases including atherosclerosis and diabetes, but they have not been able to show why or how this occurs until recently. One study suggests that the cause of diseases was the nonhuman sialic N-glycolylneuraminic acid, or Neu5Gc for short.  Neu5Gc is found in all mammals aside from humans, because the early humans that could provide Neu5Fc became deceased from an ancient malarial parasite.

Although humans lack the ability to produce Neu5Gc, we still contain the ability to incorporate it into the glycans on our cells by eating red meat. Once it becomes part of the glycan’s coat, our cells then identify it as a ‘foreign’ substance. This now triggers inflammation throughout the body because of the way our immune system recognized the Neu5Gc and begins attacking it. Inflammation caused by the internal attacks can lead to heart attack, stroke and even cancer.

The research team of Lebrilla League has since developed methods to rapidly monitor the human glycome by capitalizing on engineering advancements and improvements in sample processing which can now monitor thousands of glycans at once. With this ability, it allows them to characterize the glycans in cells from healthy controls and patients with a variety of different diseases.

According to CNBC, “Our goal is to use this data to develop predictive models to help clinicians diagnose and treat all human diseases. We believe that a new wave of medical advancements will arrive as we unlock the sugar code.”

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