Medical Studies

What is the the “sugar code”?

Everyone knows about the Human Genome project.  The idea was to map all the genes in human (and some animal) DNA to get a better idea of the genetic factors that cause disease.  However, there are many factors beyond DNA that cause disease.  One may be the sugars in your body, also known as glycans.  In an article in The Conversation, authors Maverakis, Lebrilla and Wang write:

These long sugar chains that cover each of our cells are called glycans, and according to the National Academy of Sciences, creating a map of their location and structure will usher us into a new era of modern medicine. This is because the human glycome – the entire collection of sugars within our body – houses yet-to-be-discovered glycans with the potential to aid physicians in diagnosing and treating their patients.

Glycans are one of the four major macromolecules essential for life, with the others being DNA, proteins, and fats. The authors claim that knowing more about a patient’s glycome could help inform the root causes of auto-immune diseases (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis), food allergies, or even cancer.  For instance, aging is linked to inflammation in our glycome, but the authors do not clearly state if this relationship is causal in one direction or another (i.e., does aging cause glycome inflation, or does inflammation in the glycome from other sources increase the speed of aging), but they hvae developed an glycan theory of autoimmunity.  However, protein behavior does appear to be moderated by which glycans attach to the protein.

Diseases have found a number of ways to use the glycome to inflect humans.

…group B streptococcus, which commonly cause severe infections in babies, can avoid immune detection by impersonating human cells by carrying similar glycans as a disguise…Unfortunately some pathogens are also able to use our glycans to help them cause disease. Deadly viruses like HIV and Ebola have evolved to grab hold of specific glycans which they then “lock” onto as they infect our human cells. Therapies that either block these viruses from interacting with our glycans, or that attack virus-specific glycans may be a new avenue to treating these infections.

Thus, the authors believe that further study of the glycome, or “sugar code” can help unlock new ways to treat these diseaes.

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