NIH Awards $1.8M to Advance Sugar Molecule Toolkits for Research

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by Patricia Inácio, PhD |

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South Carolina’s Integrated Micro-Chromatography Systems (IMCS) has been awarded a $1.8-million grant to advance the development of affordable gangliosides — fat molecules with a sugar link — to aid in developing therapeutics and diagnostics for Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases.

The funds are part of a second parcel of a Fast-Track Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIH/NIGMS).

Gangliosides are highly abundant in the nervous system and help brain cells communicate with each other and with the environment. A growing body of evidence suggests that gangliosides start to decay with aging and in neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s.

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Moreover, modifications in the sugar molecules — called glycans — that are present in gangliosides in the brain have been implicated in the onset and progression of neurodegenerative diseases.

However, research on glycans has been halted due to the low availability of research tools fueled by high manufacturing costs. Currently, gangliosides and other glycan-modified cell membranes are harvested from pigs, sheep, and cows.

“Some experiments with glycolipids are cost-prohibitive, but scalable and facile access to glycolipids would make such experiments financially feasible,” Matthew Macauley, PhD, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Alberta, who is not involved in the project, said in a press release.

The new grant will boost the development of affordable and easy-to-use animal-free gangliosides for use in research for diseases like Parkinson’s.

The outcomes of this project could be “a tremendous help for a lab that doesn’t have expertise with glycan synthesis [production] and doesn’t want to invest in getting all these enzymes expressed,” said Macauley.

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IMCS had been awarded a $2.56-million Fast-Track Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant from the NIH/NIGMS to expand the development of glycan toolkits and build an extensive array of sialoglycans — a diverse family of sugar-carrying glycans — for glycobiology-related research.

In total, the combined Fast-Track grants now exceed $5.25 million.

Andrew Lee, PhD, co-founder and chief scientific officer of IMCS, will co-lead the SBIR project along with Xi Chen, PhD, professor of chemistry at the University of California (UC), Davis.

The STTR project was conducted in collaboration with Hai Yu, PhD, project scientist at UC-Davis.