‘Sweet’ technology breakthrough can easily spot disease biomarkers

12 Feb 2018

Image: Juan Gaertner/Shutterstock

A new technology could prove invaluable for the treatment of many diseases by finding once-hidden biomarkers in a patient’s blood.

Despite our best efforts so far, science has yet to find good biomarkers for many of the diseases that kill thousands every day, as the struggle to identify them in a blood sample continues.

But now, a team of researchers from the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University has developed a new technology that can accurately identify these elusive biomarkers by assessing the antibodies we are making in the complex sugars coating our cells.

Sugar-coated cells are essential for our wellbeing as they help cells know what other cells to bind to.

Also, their adhesive nature can help them stick to other cells, while adding protection from bacteria and viruses.

However, the same sugar coating can inexplicably become a target for our immune system, which can dramatically alter cell function and lead to disease.

So, in a paper published to Nature Communications, the team described how its Luminex Multiplex Glycan Array enables the kind of volume needed to establish associations between antibody levels in our blood to these complex sugars, or glycans.

By exposing a patient’s blood or serum to diseases, the scientists can see which glycans the patient is making antibodies against and how many they are making, while looking for trends that could predict disease course and even potentially one day diagnose their disease.

What is normal and what is disease?

The array has already been used to identify a potential biomarker for those with a high risk of ovarian cancer relapse following surgery and standard chemotherapy regimens.

Dr Jin-Xiong She, co-author of the study, said of the breakthrough: “While we think this new test will eventually enable us to do many things, right now we have evidence it can help determine biomarkers for those at risk for relapse from cancer.”

He added that the ability to quickly look at large numbers of patient samples and glycans is particularly important when data collection is still very much underway to see what it all means.

One day, Jin-Xiong said that broad-range glycan antibody assessments could become part of a routine patient exam, such as blood levels of cholesterol and lipids, which provide early clues that something is amiss.

“With this new technology, we can explore what is normal and what is disease. This is just the beginning.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic