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October 9, 2001
Awards "Glue Grant" to Study Cell Talk
In our bodies, cells
"talk" to each other constantly. Often, this cellular
conversation hinges on carbohydrates--sugar molecules that blanket every cell
in our bodies. Carbohydrates and proteins associated with them permit
cells to transmit and receive chemical, electrical, and mechanical messages
that underlie everything from growth to movement to thought.
Yet for the most part,
researchers know very little about exactly how our cells use sugars to
To begin to untangle
huge biomedical problems like teasing apart the roles carbohydrates and
proteins play in cellular communication, the National Institute of General
Medical Sciences has provided a "glue grant" of $7.4 million
(for the first year of funding) to a consortium of basic scientists dedicated
to studying carbohydrate function. NIGMS anticipates spending a projected
total of $34 million on the project over the course of five years.
project leader is James Paulson, Ph.D., The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI)
and a member of the UCSD School of Medicine’s Glycobiology Research and
Training Center (GRTC). Ajit Varki, M.D., director of the GRTC, and
other GRTC members are project collaborators with nearly 20 percent of the
glue-grant funding anticipated to go to UCSD to support core resources for
glycan analysis and mouse phenotyping.
“Consortium for Functional Glycomics,” the project brings together more
than 40 researchers from all walks of scientific life--cell biology,
chemistry, biophysics, genomics, bioinformatics and genetics. "Glycomics"
is the scientific pursuit of identifying and studying all of the carbohydrate
molecules produced by an organism. And, because the precise interactions
between carbohydrates and proteins continue to mystify scientists, the
Consortium promises to change that by bringing together a large group of
scientists from leading academic medical centers across the country.
“This is a truly
exciting and original effort,” said Varki. “We look forward to
working closely with this world-wide consortium of outstanding scientists.
While the ultimate goal of knowing all the sugar structures and their
functions is far away, this is a bold and imaginative step in that
In addition to Varki,
who is a steering committee member and core coordinator, UCSD faculty involved
in the grant include Jamey Marth, Ph.D. and Steve Hedrick, Ph.D., steering
committee members and core coordinators; Dzung Le, M.D., Ph.D., director,
Hematology Core; Nissi Varki, M.D., director, Histology Core; Herman van
Halbeek, Ph.D., director, Glycan Analytical Core; Bradley Hayes, Ph.D.,
associate director, Analytical Core.
“The immune system
is not centered in a particular organ, but rather it is dispersed throughout
almost every tissue in the body. It functions through cell to cell
communication, and many of these cellular interactions appear to be mediated
by protein-carbohydrate interactions,” noted Hedrick. “The NIGMS award
will bring together glycobiologists and immunologists to discover new
paradigms in immune recognition and reactivity.”
For years, the study
of carbohydrates has languished. Unlike proteins, which are produced for
the most part from a single template--an individual gene--carbohydrates are
made by a cascade of chemical reactions inside our bodies. Many of these
reactions are extremely hard to replicate in the lab and the complex, branched
structures of carbohydrates make development of efficient and routine methods
of study a challenge.
The Consortium's immediate plans include identifying carbohydrate molecules--and proteins that associate with carbohydrates--that collectively play important roles in cell communication. Another key goal of the group will be to figure out how certain cells control the production of the many varieties of sugars involved in cell communication.
A cornerstone to the
Consortium, and to the NIGMS glue grant program in general, is free and wide
access to research results. The Consortium will support four databases
to enhance free data access by the scientific community. The glue grant
will allow the group to create unique research tools, such as the databases
shared by Consortium members and other researchers. This approach is
expected to dramatically accelerate progress in the study of carbohydrates and
One of the databases
will house detailed structures of many carbohydrates; any scientist will be
able to plumb the repository for structures related to his or her own research
The Consortium also includes the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the Shemyakin & Ovchinnikov Institute (Moscow, Russia); the University of Oklahoma Health Science Center; the University of Dundee (Dundee, Scotland); the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology; the University of Michigan Medical Center; and additional participating investigators from a dozen or so other universities worldwide.
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