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ESF's workshop restores good name of sugar: Glycoscience now hotbed of medical research

Sugars were once credited with magical healing powers but are now seen like salt as an evil necessary in small doses but the cause of numerous diseases such as diabetes if taken in excess. Yet latest research suggests this view ignores the vital role played by more complex sugars in many biological structures, and the great therapeutic potential they have.

This all emerged in a recent workshop organised by the European Science Foundation (ESF) on the current state of the art in glycoscience, the study of complex sugars in biology. Delegates heard how glycoscience has become one of the hotbeds of biological and medical research, intimately involved in every aspect of metabolism and immune function. The big challenge now is to coordinate research in the field, bring together the relevant specialisms, and determine where to go next, according to the ESF workshops' convenor, Tony Merry from Manchester University in the UK. "There is so much progress in the field it is a bit difficult to predict where the greatest impact will be," said Merry.

The key point is that complex sugars are involved every time cells, and smaller structures within cells, communicate or bind with each other. This means they play a major part in all processes, including immune recognition and brain functions such as memory. It also means complex carbohydrates are often implicated in diseases where these functions go wrong, including auto-immune disorders such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as some cancers. The immune response often depends on the identity and location of sugars on antigens, which are the surface molecules on pathogens such as bacteria, or in principle any cells or smaller biological components such as protein complexes, that are recognised by the body's own machinery for detecting foreign bodies. Complex sugars such as polysaccharides are core components of antigens, alongside lipids (fatty compounds) and proteins. These antigens in effect determine the outcome of an infectious disease and the response by the host organism such as human - structural differences between these antigens often account for the inability of many diseases to cross from one animal species to another and this is exemplified in the case of influenza where key molecules on the virus interacty with different complex sugars in birds and humans.

The ESF workshop identified the need to build momentum behind glycoscience, whose importance has been grossly undervalued, and in particular to boost European research. "We decided that we need to all speak with one voice through a single organisation in Europe so we have agreed to expand the UK based Glycoscience Forum, of which I am Executive Secretary, to become the Euroglycosciences Forum. We also decided this should be reflected by recruitment of members throughout Europe onto committees," said Merry. "We agreed that although we have world class expertise in many areas (and if fact are world leaders in some) we do not have the same presence and image as has been forged by our colleagues in USA and Japan."

Equally the profile of the field needs boosting not just among the public, but also within the scientific community, which has tended to downplay the importance of glycoscience partly because it seems too complicated to understand and analyse. "The chemistry of glycoscience is extremely difficult," Merry admitted. But it is possible to simplify the chemistry and define it in terms of essential active constituents and interactions, as has been done for DNA and proteins, which are built up from more straightforward components, respectively nucleic acids and amino acids. According to Merry a similar rationalisation is needed for carbohydrates to bring glycomics - the science of sugars in general - onto the same footing as genomics (genes) and proteomics (proteins).

It is vital that this task is achieved since glycomics, genomics and proteomics are all equal cogs in the overall mechanism of biology, to the extent that progress in developing therapies depends on integrating the three together rather than advancing on one front while ignoring another.

The ESF Exploratory Workshop, Glycoscience Comes Of Age, was held at Kolocep, Croatia, in May 2007. The stage was set for a coordinated but flexible European glycoscience programme mediated by a forum of members from a number of different disciplines.

Thomas Lau | alfa
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