With the launch of new a $15.5 million, five-year initiative, the National Cancer Institute is ramping up efforts to help identify potential cancer biomarkers in the form of complex carbohydrate structures attached to lipid and protein molecules, known as glycans. A total of seven independent Tumor Glycome Laboratories will focus on potential glycan biomarkers for breast, ovarian, pancreatic, and prostate cancers, to name just a few. The Glycome Laboratories are the primary component of the new trans-NIH Alliance of Glycobiologists for Detection of Cancer and Cancer Risk.
A slew of recent studies comparing normal and tumor cells have suggested that alterations in the glycan structures of cells are related to tumor growth. “I’ve been active in the field of cancer biomarkers for many years now, and many of the tumor markers are what we call glycosylated,” says Sudhir Srivastava, chief of the Biomarkers Research Group in NCI’s Division of Cancer Prevention. “But it has been very intriguing to see that no one has ever tried to see the significance of these structures in the diagnostic performance of [cancer biomarkers].”
Traditionally, the investigation of glycans has been an arduous and time-consuming task, due to the seemingly endless number of structural variations. “There are tens of thousands of glycans, many of whom we have not discovered, and it will be a challenge, but the technology has really improved,” Srivastava says. It was not too long ago that an initial analysis of a glycan structure took many years. But refinements in mass spectrometry technology, along with increasingly advanced molecular modeling software, have made trailblazing in glycobiology less and less daunting.
The new initiative will act as a sister program to the NCI’s much larger Early Detection Research Network (EDRN), another alliance member that, along with National Institute of General Medical Sciences’ Consortium for Functional Glycomics and several National Center for Research Resources-supported Glycotechnology Resources Centers, will provide statistical analysis and collection of clinical specimens for target validation studies. “[EDRN] studies biomarkers of all kinds, and they have much more knowledge about the clinical aspects of biomarkers,” Srivastava says. “So what we are hoping is that this alliance will actually start working on some of the biomarkers that have been discovered within EDRN to see if we can improve diagnostic performance of those biomarkers by characterizing glycans. That’s our goal.”