Together, the University of Texas at Austin and New York University are unlocking the “black box” that is carbohydrate control mechanisms. Carbohydrates, or glycans, coat the outsides of cells and control cell-cell communication, inflammation, and cancer metastasis. “Carbohydrate can tell us a lot about what’s going on inside of a cell, so they are potentially good markers for disease,” said Lara Mahal of NYU’s Department of Chemistry, who led a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Mahal and the rest of the team were particularly interested in how these carbohydrate structures are produced and what controls the types of carbohydrates that appear on different types of cells.
First, lectin microarrays were used to identify glycosylation signatures of NCI-60 cancer cells. Then, since recent work indicated that microRNAs play a role in glycan biosynthetic enzymes, the researchers mapped microRNA regulators onto genes within the glycan biosynthetic pathways that generate the glycan structures observed by the microarrays. Three miRNA/glycogene regulatory networks were validated: high mannose, fucose, and terminal β-GalNAc. “Carbohydrates aren’t just telling you the type of cell they came from, but also by which process they were created,” explains Mahal.
These results give insight on how the outside of a cell can reveal what is going on inside of the cell. If certain carbohydrate signatures can be identified on cells, then it may be telling that microRNAs, some of which play a role in controlling tumor growth, are being produced by cells and that the cells might be metastatic. Commented Mahal, “Our study reveals how cancer cells produce certain ‘carbohydrate signatures’ that we can now identify.”