Glycobiology Of Cancer Could Aid Understanding Of Cancer Risk

Armen Hareyan's picture

National Cancer Institute is funding a new $15.5 million, five-year initiative to discover, develop, and clinically validate cancer biomarkers by targeting the carbohydrate (glycan) part of a molecule.

Biomarkers are substances sometimes found in the blood, other body fluids, or tissues that measure biological processes, and in addition to genes and proteins, can be complex carbohydrate (sugar) structures that are attached to protein and lipid (fat) molecules. Seven NCI-funded Tumor Glycome Laboratories are now searching for glycan-based biomarkers for melanoma, and breast, ovarian, lung, prostate, colon, and pancreatic cancers.


'Scientists have long recognized that certain sugar structures, which are attached to protein and lipid molecules, may be important as markers for cancer development,' said NCI Director John E. Niederhuber, M.D. 'While this area has compelling scientific interest, its biological and chemical complexities have often discouraged investigation. Today, with the advent of advanced technologies to conduct protein and carbohydrate chemistry, research into this intriguing area has experienced renewed interest.'

Numerous studies comparing normal and tumor cells have shown that changes in the glycan structures of cells correlate with cancer development. Glycans are extremely abundant, but recent advances in technology have only now allowed a systematic study of these structures. Many protein biomarkers also have glycan components and analysis of these two molecular structures together may improve the value of tests such as those for prostate-specific antigen (PSA), CA-125, and carcinoembryonic antigen, which are sometimes used in prostate, ovarian, and colon cancer detection, respectively.

The NCI's Tumor Glycome Laboratories are the principle component of the new trans-NIH Alliance of Glycobiologists for Detection of Cancer and Cancer Risk. The other components of the alliance are the Consortium for Functional Glycomics funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and several Glycomics and Glycotechnology Resource Centers supported by the National Center for Research Resources. The NCI's Early Detection Research Network (EDRN) is also an alliance member, providing support for design and statistical analysis, patient accrual, and collection of clinical specimens to facilitate validation studies using EDRN's existing components.