Understanding the cell changes associated with cancer will provide vital clues for both detecting and treating the disease. The EU-funded GlycoBioM project is contributing with tools to pinpoint disease indicators. And three years into the project, the team has already come up with a method to reduce false-positive cancer diagnoses.
© Dario Lo Presti - Fotolia
A cure for cancer has become the Holy Grail for many medic researchers – and naturally for sufferers and their families. But before a cure is possible, scientists must first understand how the disease functions. Key to this understanding are the changes that occur in cells and cell structure.
GlycoBioM is truly a European success story, with partners from opposite ends of Europe all contributing to ground-breaking results. When the Irish (NIBRT) and Croatian teams found that certain glycans (a type of carbohydrate) can predict the speed at which colon cancer will progress (which could lead to tailored therapy – or 'smart drugs' – for individual patients), the Danish team took up the baton, developing a new glycoprofiling method to reduce false-positive cancer diagnoses, particularly among women suspected of having ovarian cancer.
In addition to the blood test for ovarian cancer, the team has made commendable progress in unravelling the complexities of breast cancer. "Our results have revealed that the tumour-associated glycan changes may be an independent diagnostic parameter in malignant disease such as breast cancer," says Professor Christoph Wagener from project partner the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE) in Germany. He hopes that the results will help doctors identify the most appropriate therapy for patients.
In parallel, project members from the University of Manchester and Liverpool University in the UK have been working on an analytical tool to capture and characterise glycan binding proteins. This high-throughput technology could eventually be used in clinics to pinpoint sugar biomarkers in diseases such as cancer.
Equally noteworthy has been the team's progress in understanding diabetes, in particular the discovery of a novel glycan biomarker. The team expects to develop a system that will enable patients to check for maturity-onset diabetes of the young (MODY) – a form of diabetes that is caused by mutations in different genes.
The results all stem from observing changes to a normal cell process – called glycosylation – in patients with diseases such as cancer.
Disease indicator – how it works
In cancer cells, recognition between cells is disrupted, allowing the invasive growth and spread of tumour cells. This phenomenon is reflected in the glycans of the cell coat, which are of particular interest to researchers. In more technical terms, "Recombinant glycan protein molecules (or receptors) are used to identify tumour-associated changes to the glycans in the cell coat of tumour cells," says Wagener.
The protein molecules can be used to identify changes to carcinoma cells in tissue sections, or to classify sub-populations of leukaemia cells.
And the project is expected to generate yet more new tools for analysing glycobiomarkers in the clinic, including enhanced diagnostic imaging. This will be useful for monitoring the effects and safety of cancer therapies, bringing medical science a step closer to conquering some of the most complex and troublesome disease families of our time.
The team now holds several patents in glycomic analysis, while other researchers can already benefit from some of the team’s findings in the form of the GlycoBase online platform developed at NIBRT in Ireland, which provides tools for biomarker discovery.
The EU-funded GlycoBioM project has brought together leading European scientists to study glycosylation. Hailing from Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Ireland and the UK, the team’s work to identify new biomarkers and tools for detection and diagnostic screening is breaking new ground. Personalised treatment for cancer and related diseases now look to be within reach.