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Why carbohydrates are cool!

23 August 2012

For many of us carbohydrates are those enticing treats that we reach for during times of celebration, commiseration, or simply as a much needed pick-me-up at the end of a busy day.  But did you know that it isn’t just our ‘mood’ that responds to carbohydrates - our immune system does too! 

Understanding how we can use carbohydrates to influence immune responses for the treatment of diseases such as asthma, cancer and tuberculosis is the focus of Dr Bridget Stocker’s Immunoglycomics research group (pictured above) at the Malaghan Institute.  The carbohydrates used by Dr Stocker’s team are not the kind you will find in the baking section of your local supermarket, but that doesn’t matter because her team of skilled chemists are able to synthesise any specific sugar they need.  In fact, their novel strategies for improving the synthesis of particular carbohydrates have led to two new patents.

Dr Stocker has just returned to the Malaghan Institute following a month overseas presenting her carbohydrate-based research at several institutes and conferences in Europe.  The highlight of which was being selected as 1 of 10 young scientists (within 10 years of their PhD) to present at the Young Investigator Symposium before the XXVIth International Carbohydrate Symposium (ICS), in Madrid, Spain.  

Much of Dr Stocker’s research uses compounds called glycolipids, which are basically a carbohydrate linked to a lipid (fat molecule).  The compound ?-galactosylceramide (?-GalCer), which we use in our cancer vaccine research, is a classic example of a glycolipid that can modulate immune responses.  In collaborative work recently published in the international journal ChemBioChem, Dr Stocker’s team demonstrated that the structure of the lipid tail of ?-GalCer is important for eliciting a good anti-tumour immune response.  Next they will look at what happens when they start changing the sugar end of ?-GalCer - the collective knowledge from which will contribute to the development of even better cancer vaccine adjuvants in the future.

In other work, Dr Stocker’s team is examining the complex carbohydrates found in the cell walls of bacteria to understand how they are able to modulate the host immune response. This, in turn, will lead to the development of more effective therapeutics and vaccination strategies for infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. 

This week Dr Stocker found out that one of her group’s recent scientific papers, published in the journal Carbohydrate Research, was the ‘most downloaded carbohydrate research article’ from SciVerse Science Direct in the last 90 days. 

So it just goes to show that carbohydrates are cool and worthy of our attention. 

If only the variety found in chocolate and cakes had just as many health benefits!