Professor David Vocadlo


Sugar key to cellular proteins’ protection and viability

March 16, 2015

A Simon Fraser University laboratory’s breakthrough in understanding how a specialized sugar regulates protein levels in our cells could generate new targets for therapies to treat diseases caused by improper protein regulation. Cancer and various neurodegenerative diseases are among these diseases. In the case of Alzheimer’s disease, the toxic forms of two proteins accumulate in our brains.

Working with Dr. Yanping Zhu and other researchers in SFU’s Laboratory for Chemical Glycobiology, which he heads, SFU chemistry and molecular biology and biochemistry professor David Vocadlo has discovered that a specialized sugar gets attached to proteins as they form. The sugar protects them from being marked for premature destruction. Decreasing this sugar modification, his team has found, leads to the destruction of newly forming protein chains and lowers levels of mature stable proteins.

“This is an exciting discovery because proteins, which are encoded by genes, pretty much perform all our cellular activities,” explains Vocadlo. “Improper control of protein levels in our cells is a factor in many diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. So our findings suggest that our cells might be using this specialized sugar to modify proteins as they are being created to ensure that the newly formed proteins are stable and functional.

The journal Nature Chemical Biology has just published a paper on these findings. Vocadlo, a Canada Research Chair and an E.W.R. Stacie Memorial Fellow, cautions that he and his colleagues still have a long way to go before this new insight can be exploited to treat diseases that stem from improper regulation of protein levels.

“We still have to define the repertoire of proteins that this sugar modifies during the creation of proteins and how this modification process influences the health of cells facing various stresses.”

Vocadlo’s previous appreciation of this specialized sugar’s powerful role in Alzheimer’s and cancer motivated him to investigate whether its presence and activity affects cellular protein formation and regulation.

Following on the observation that the sugar’s presence is decreased in Alzheimer’s disease, Vocadlo and his team had previously shown that correct sugar-modification levels are required to prevent disease in neurodegeneration models.

In cancers, which are very metabolically active and use large amounts of glucose to power their growth, the scenario is different—this sugar’s modification levels are commonly elevated. Blocking this sugar modification decreases the activity of proteins involved in the metabolism of cancer cells and thus helps decrease tumour growth.

Vocadlo says understanding how this sugar modification regulates protein levels in these diseases should enable appropriate tuning of its levels for therapeutic benefit.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) funded this research.