From Left: Gavin Teo, Dr Matthew Choo, Dr Brian Liau and Dr Andre Choo
B. Liau, B. Tan, G. Teo, P. Zhang, A. Choo & P. M. Rudd
Bioprocessing Technology Institute, Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore
Published in Scientific Reports 2017 7(1): 14489 (Online Version)
Cancer cells are difficult to distinguish from healthy ones because they contain many of the same molecules, such as DNA, proteins and lipids. This makes cancers difficult to diagnose and treat.
However, cells also contain sugar molecules on their surfaces, which are arranged in complex structures called “glycans”. Glycan structures are highly sensitive to changes in the cell’s internal state, and often change when cells become cancerous. Indeed, antibodies, which are the “soldiers” of the immune system, are able to recognise changes in glycan structures caused by cancer, marking them for destruction before they can do harm.
Identifying changes in glycan structure due to cancer can be daunting because there are many thousands of such structures present on each cell, and only a few may have changed. Pin-pointing these changes would enable scientists to more easily distinguish cancer cells from healthy ones. The altered glycans might also be useful as targets for new cancer-fighting drugs.
To simplify this analysis, scientists in the Analytics lab have designed a new method to extract glycans from cancer cells to create “biochips”. Cancer-recognising antibodies were tested on these biochips to discover glycans which had changed significantly due to cancer. Structural analyses were then focused on only those structures which were different in cancer, allowing cancer-related glycan structures to be identified much more quickly and easily than conventional methods.
This technology could be highly useful in identifying cancer “signatures”, which could allow cancers to be detected earlier. The technology could also facilitate drug development efforts, allowing cancer-fighting antibodies to be brought to market earlier.
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