Sugar molecule in researchers’ spotlight

Sugar compounds from the glycan group have an important role to play in a number of biological processes in our bodies. By forming a chemical compound with protein and fats and altering these substances in the process, they regulate the maturation of kidneys, form connections between nerve pathways in the brain and contribute to the working of the immune system. A DFG research group involving FAU is investigating these biochemical processes and has received follow-up funding from DFG worth 4.6 million euros. The speaker is PD Dr. Martina Mühlenhoff from Hannover Medical School, and deputy speaker Prof. Lars Nitschke from the Chair of Genetics at FAU.

The researchers are focusing on the group of sialoglycans that incorporate a sugar module called sialic acid. This has a significant role to play in many processes in the immune system and in embryonic development.

Within FAU, three groups are investigating the role of sialic acids in the immune system. Prof. Nitschke’s group was able to demonstrate that B-cells in the immune system responsible for producing antibodies are unable to survive if they lack sialic acid. If a lack is perceived, the B-cells receive a signal triggering programmed cell death and die off. The group led by Prof. Falk Nimmerjahn and the junior research group led by Dr. Anja Werner, also from the Chair of Genetics, are investigating the role of sialic acids attached to antibodies. For antibodies classed as immunoglobins, the group led by Prof. Nimmerjahn was able to show that the sialic acids they are attached to influence whether these antibodies strengthen or weaken inflammation processes. This is significant for autoimmune diseases.

Using the most modern analysis methods, the research teams hope to reveal the different types of sialic acid and the individual biochemical processes they regulate. The DFG research group combines expertise from biochemistry, genetics, immunology and structural biology, and the researchers hope that these new findings will lead to an improved understanding of how sialoglycans can lead to developmental disorders, complications in pregnancy, or contribute to autoimmune and age-related inflammatory diseases.

The research group FOR2953, “Sialic Acid as Regulator in Development and Immunity” has received funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG) since 2019.

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