Sugars May Act As Mirrors Into Cancer Cells

Carbohydrate molecules may serve as signals for cancer, pointing to new ways in which sugars can be used to look at the inner workings of cells.

Says Lara Mahal, an associate professor in New York University’s Department of Chemistry and the study’s corresponding author:

“Carbohydrates can tell us a lot about what’s going on inside of a cell, so they are potentially good markers for disease. Our study reveals how cancer cells produce certain ‘carbohydrate signatures’ that we can now identify.”

Carbohydrates, or glycans, are complex cell-surface molecules that control multiple aspects of cell biology, including cancer metastasis. But less understood is the link between categories of cells and corresponding carbohydrate structures.

In other words, what do certain carbohydrates on a cell’s surfaces tell us about its characteristics and inner workings or, more succinctly, how do you read a code backwards?

In the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers examined the role of microRNA, non-coding RNA that are regulators of the genome. Specific miRNAs—such as miR-200—play a role in controlling tumor growth.

Using microarray technology developed by Mahal, the team examined cancer cells in an effort to see how they generated a carbohydrate signature. Specifically, they mapped how miRNA controls carbohydrate signatures.

In their analysis, the researchers could see that miRNA molecules serve as major regulators of the cell’s surface-level carbohydrates—a discovery that showed, for the first time, that miRNA play a significant regulatory role in this part of the cell, also known as the glycome.

Moreover, they could see which regulatory process was linked to specific carbohydrates.

“Carbohydrates aren’t just telling you the type of cell they came from, but also by which process they were created,” explains Mahal. “Our results showed that there are regulatory networks of miRNAs and that they are associated with specific carbohydrate codes.”

Praveen Agrawal, et al.
Mapping posttranscriptional regulation of the human glycome uncovers microRNA defining the glycocode
PNAS March 18, 2014 vol. 111 no. 11 4338-4343

Photo: Heather Kaiser/Flickr