Knowledge of glycobiology can improve your health?

This is the title of Geiske de Ruig’ s talk at TEDxRoermond, site which is definitely worth watching:

While I can’t endorse her description of the health benefits of ‘essential sugars’ she does raise some interesting questions. She mentions that pharmaceutical companies have about 50 sugar-based drugs in development. Our white paper gives a list of 7 sugar-based drugs that are on the market, more about and if you include all the different forms of heparin this number would rise to about 40.  Heparin is a widely used anticoagulant, more about which is worth about US$ 3 billion per annum. Regardless of the exact numbers of sugar based drugs in development or on the market these numbers are really small when we consider how many drugs there are.

GlycoMar has been working on the development of sugar-based anti-inflammatories for over 8 years. Our partners at Verona Pharma call this NAIPS – Novel Anti-Inflammatory Polysaccharides, which they are developing for treatment of respiratory inflammation, including asthma, allergic rhinitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Our own programme is targeting psoriasis and inflammatory bowel disease.

What is glycobiology?

Wikipedia gives a definition of Glycobiology as “the study of the structure, biosynthesis, and biology of saccharides (sugar chains or glycans) that are widely distributed in nature”. Despite the importance of glycobiology to most biological processes it remains underdeveloped – we have not yet seen a ‘glycomic’ revolution to match genomics and proteomics. The growth of glycobiology continues to be restricted by the technical challenges: synthesis of saccharides is not template-driven like genomics and proteomics, there is no sequencing tool to allow us to rapidly characterise the structure of saccharides, and the potential chemical diversity of saccharides is orders of magnitude greater than equivalent nucleic acid or peptide molecules (see Turnbull & Field  2007 Nature Chemical Biology 3(2), pp74-77).

Why should we be interested in glycobiology?

Saccharides play a number of important roles in biology:

  • the glycosylation of proteins is important to protein function and optimisation of glycosylation is recognised as important for modern biologic drugs (for example;
  • innate immunity where saccharides are important for the recognition of ‘non-self’;
  • inflammation and cancer where saccharides are important for cellular interactions and migration;
  • structural saccharides such as the glycosaminoglycans in cartilage and connective tissue;
  • secreted saccharides which form mucus and slime; and,
  • dietary saccharides, such as prebiotics, play a role in maintaining a healthy gut microbiome.

Saccharides cover the surface of all cells – the ‘glycocalyx’ – and so play a fundamental role in cell-cell interactions and the interaction of signalling molecules with the cell. In inflammation, for example, the interaction of inflammatory cells with the vascular endothelium critically involves saccharides (see for a full description.).

At GlycoMar we are harnessing marine glycobiology to develop new anti-inflammatory drugs, and others developing saccharides as drugs include Progen Pharmaceuticals working in cancer metastasis and Endotis Pharma working on several disease indications. We believe that knowledge of glycobiology can improve health, and hope to see many more organisations developing novel glycotherapies.