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Sugar not only on top of the cakes

23. 12. 2020 | 382 visits

Christmas is a time of peace and tranquillity. Christmas cakes are an integral part of this holiday.  Most of them contain beet or cane sugar inside and some on the top in the form of a small white covering.  Today, sugar evokes rather negative emotions. But is that really so, and do we have to condemn it?  Scientists from the Slovak Academy of Sciences have looked at it from a biological point of view.

In the past, it was believed that sugars have only one function for humans, which is a source of energy.  Scientific research has proven that this is not the case. “The functions for which saccharides are responsible are important and essential in human life.  Lipid- or protein-bound saccharides play a key role in the exchange of information between cells, are an integral part of the immune system and most of the processes associated with the body´s fight against foreign substances that are constantly entering the body. Moreover, sugars help in the molecular recognition of substances and also serve as a barrier to cell protection,” explains Filip Květoň from the          Institute of Chemistry SAS. 

Each of us has already encountered the consequences of the saccharide structure change on the cell surface. The most widespread example is the existence of blood types, which we divide into 0, A, B and AB.  The result of the formation of the specific blood type is the interchange, or the absence of only one molecule of sugar.

“What saccharide and where it binds is controlled by a process called glycosylation. It is a complex series of successive reactions that take place continuously in the cellular process. They depend on the presence of enzymes, sugar precursors, organelle structures as well as cell types and cell signals. If the expected modification of the saccharide does not occur in any step due to a disorder in the production of any of the enzymes, the cascade is interrupted and the saccharide accumulates in the body, which causes the disease of an individual,” said Filip Květoň.

For instance, changes in glycosylation can modulate inflammatory reactions, favour cancer cell formation or metastasis. New knowledge about the structure and function of the glycome (the total set of free and bound sugars in the body) can help in the diagnostics of metabolic disorders, various cancer types or diseases of civilisation.

“In our laboratory, we try to identify rare metabolic diseases by monitoring such saccharides.  These include lysosomal disorders and congenital glycosylation disorders. Their occurrence is rare in the population, approximately 1 patient per 100,000 healthy individuals. Of course, there are still a number of conventional diagnostic analyses today, but their disadvantage is often insufficient informative value, which does not clarify the exact molecular nature of the disease. Traditional diagnostic methods used in hospitals sometimes have their limits, and that is when cooperation between doctors and scientists comes into play,” said Zuzana Pakanová from the Institute of Chemistry SAS.

At the Institute of Chemistry SAS, scientists analyse oligosaccharides in blood and urine. Using state-of-the-art instrumentation and human potential, they identify molecules (biomarkers) of a wide variety of diseases, even those that would not be observable by other, traditional methods.

“At this point, we can talk about early personalised diagnostics, when we can use analytical methods to detect low concentrations of biomarkers that will help us in detecting and diagnosing diseases. “Ordinary” saccharides are often their part in glycosylation disorders,” added Zuzana Pakanová.

The sugars that the scientists study are not as sweet as typical Christmas cakes nor white and brown, as most people know.  However, they are extremely important not only for us but also for patients, because without them, we would not be able to obtain extremely important information.  It is true that the sooner the pathogenesis of the disease is identified, the sooner it is possible to start with the treatment. Chemists from the Slovak Academy of Sciences help doctors in making a good decision to correctly detect the diagnosis and perhaps start with the appropriate treatment.

This work was supported by the Ministry of Health of the Slovak Republic as part of the project with registration number 2019/7-CHÚSAV-4.

Edited by: Monika Tináková

Foto: unsplash.com