The process of glycosylation, where sugar molecules are attached to proteins, has long been of interest to scientists, particularly because certain sugar molecules are present in very high numbers in cancer cells. It now turns out that these sugar molecules are not only present in malignant cells but actually aid in their growth.  In the long term, this discovery is an important step toward a cure that can stop the growth of cancer cells.

In cooperation with a research group from Singapore, scientists at University of Copenhagen in Denmark have shown that immature sugar molecules in the form of truncated O-glycans aid growth properties of cancer cells. Previously, scientists have not been able to decode the significance of these truncated O-glycans. Therefore, these results represent an important contribution to understanding the growth of cancer cells as well as the work toward developing a cure that can limit or stop their growth. The research was recently published in PNAS (2013; 110(34):E3152-E3161).

Catharina Steentoft, a PhD student at Copenhagen Center for Glycomics and one of the scientists behind the results, stresses that this is basic science, and there is still a long way from the results to actually developing a treatment or using them for diagnostic purposes. The results are still a cause for optimism, though.

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“This is part of how we will proceed in the battle against cancer. When you know a certain process is important for the development of cancer, you can start to consider ways to affect this process in a way that stops the cancer cell from taking advantage of it,” explained Steentoft.

Sugar molecules play an important role in almost all of the processes taking place in the body. One way they affect us is through glycosylation. Whereas the proteins are like building blocks for the human body, the sugar molecules affect the proteins and the interactions of the proteins with other proteins and other cells.

For 30 years, many scientists have worked on using the truncated 0-glycans as biomarkers for diagnostics and outcome predictions. Now, this research team has finally pinpointed the significance of these sugar molecules, which actually cause the cancer cells to grow and the cancer to spread more aggressively.

“We have now taken the first step towards understanding how cancer cells can change their glycosylation and produce these truncated O-glycans. It is a rather big step forward since it gives us an entirely new understanding of something we have worked many years to grasp. It guides our entire field of research towards new ways to proceed in the battle against cancer,” Steentoft said.