Glycobiology meets chemistry to generate tailor-made offspring

An interdisciplinary team of scientists is pioneering the development of synthetic glycobiology and trains 15 young researchers in the enabling technologies that underpin the development and exploitation of glycoscience: An exciting topic that promises to bring innovative solutions for the future!

Every living cell is covered by a coating of complex carbohydrates and these carbohydrates interact with proteins. Anything that approaches the cell membrane, must first descend through this forest of molecules. One of the most prominent examples is the initial binding of a sperm to an egg: a protein on the head of the sperm binds to a specific carbohydrate on the egg. Another example is the mechanism of viruses entering a cell. The immune system is based on this principle as well. Interestingly, cancer cells have an altered carbohydrate structure on their surface, which makes them resistant against the immune response.

“Synthetic” in a sense of “tailor-made”

Synthetic glycobiology explores new ways, for instance, to target cancer: It facilitates the design of molecular tools that recognize the specific carbohydrate layer of cancer cells and, thus, allow to attack these cells with toxins (drugs) without affecting the healthy cells. These tools are specific carbohydrate-binding proteins, called lectins. The lectins can be conjugated with drugs resulting in ‘molecular missiles’. If targeted at the carbohydrates of cancer cells, these lectin-drug conjugates could be highly relevant for the medical technologies market. Being at the heart of synthetic glycobiology, this approach offers new opportunities not only for targeted therapeutic applications but also various analytical and diagnostic processes.

Young researcher talents for medical technologies

These innovative solutions need staff who is able to develop and to handle the tools. The MSCA project “synBIOcarb” deals with various synthetic biology approaches and equips early stage researchers with skills for entering careers in the research sector of pharmaceutical and medical technologies as well as biotechnology. They are trained not only in the scientific disciplines of glycobiology, including the exploration of biophysical interactions of cells, cell biology and analytical device technologies, but also in entrepreneurial and transferable skills. At acib in particular, the students are embedded in an academic environment with close interaction to the biotech industry. Here, they learn how to functionalize lectins, for instance, with drugs or for immobilization in a directed manner. After four years of project duration, the students will benefit from their unique skills and an enhanced employability.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 814029.