University of Georgia researchers are leading a team of scientists that developed an informatics portal, GlyGen, to bring “disparate information together in a unified way, reducing the learning curve for those new to glycoscience,” according to a UGA news release.
Glycans, or complex sugars, cover cells and function in biological processes such as interacting with other cells and fighting pathogens, according to the release. They can mediate cell division to slow down the spread of tumor development with cancer.
As reported in The Red & Black, UGA biochemistry and molecular biology professor William York, a co-principal investigator on the project, said the partnership is challenging because researchers need to understand multiple disciplines so they can examine the role of glycans in human health.
“We’re integrating different types of multidisciplinary information that’s stored in different places and making it available to scientists in ways that allow them to understand the relationships that exist,” said York, a member of the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center within the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.
Raja Mazumder, co-principal investigator and associate professor of biochemistry and molecular medicine at George Washington University’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences, is leading the data-integration team.
As part of a partnership with GW, GlyGen is funded with a $10 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.
The project, which has been operating for two years, will continue for another three years, according to the release.
“This is a good place to start,” York said. “There are no other glycan and glycoscience resources out there that are as integrated.”
Experts in biology or biochemistry still face a “learning curve,” when approaching glycoscience, York said.
“You can’t be an expert in just one area and understand glycoscience,” York said. “You have to have a really multidisciplinary viewpoint.”
The database looks to aggregate data from different sources to create “a unified language.”
“For example, there’s the English language, and then there’s Shakespeare,” he said. “Having the English language is a wonderful, amazing thing. But Shakespeare is another layer on top, and it gets us to something a little more profound.”
York said glycans play a role in several biological processes.
“All organisms have glycans, and if you get rid of them, you have an organism that’s sick or can’t live,” York said.
When studying cancer, examining glycan structures in healthy or diseased cells can show researchers what biological mechanisms cause cancer spread.
Glycans can also be used to study influenza. When a new strain of flu appears, or a strain “jumps species,” like with avian flu to humans, molecules that recognize and process glycans change.
According to York, the potential for studying glycoscience is “incredibly huge,” particularly in research on cancer, infectious diseases and development and nutrition.
“We are not going to solve these problems with GlyGen, but our tools and information resources will help scientists develop specific hypotheses in these areas,” York said.
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