Carbs aren’t the enemy, research suggests

Just like Regina George, our researchers are trying to understand roles of carbohydrates. - Esther Chang

Just like Regina George, our researchers are trying to understand roles of carbohydrates. - Esther Chang
Just like Regina George, our researchers are trying to understand roles of carbohydrates. – Esther Chang

SFU has joined a new national research council that investigates glycomics, the study of the structure and function of carbohydrates in biological systems.

Six scientists from SFU have joined over 60 others across Canada in the Canadian Glycomics Network (GlycoNet), which received $27.3 million in federal funding last month.

GlycoNet is one of the leading health-related research networks to receive funding from the federal Networks of Centres of Excellence program. Boasting a set of multidisciplinary researchers from across Canada, the organisation is playing a key role in large-scale research initiatives, such as glycomics, with the aim of improving human health.

David Vocadlo, an SFU professor of chemistry who has joined GlycoNet, told The Peak what glycomics is all about.

“Many people think of carbohydrates as simply a source of energy used by the body. Remarkably, however, the body takes glucose and converts it into about 10 different types of specialized and distinct sugar units,” he explained. These specialized sugar units are then taken by cells and stuck onto proteins that are distributed throughout the cell, coating its surface.

The sugar units play different roles, all the way from conception through development and into adulthood and aging. Vocadlo continued, “We don’t really know all the roles played by these different sugar structures in the body, and that is a topic of intense international interest.”

He also noted that the study of glycomics may contribute to our understanding of neurodegenerative diseases and cancer.

“In diseases such as cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, the cells that are affected show differences in how they use sugars. In cancer, for example, the cells take up additional glucose to feed their growth, and this creates stress on the cells,” Vocadlo said.

“Cancer cells protect against this stress by changing the levels of specialized sugars found on certain proteins. So, if we can identify these changes and then understand how these changes impact these diseased cells, we can enable the development of new therapeutics.”

Vocadlo said he believes these findings could help with the development of new therapeutic strategies for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Glycomics could also have wide ranging significance in areas extending to antibacterials and antivirals including vaccines.

Ultimately, Vocadlo is enthusiastic to be joining GlycoNet, and will begin by focussing his research on understanding and controlling carbohydrate-processing enzymes.

SHARE