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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
ESF's workshop restores good name of sugar
Article Type: Food Facts From: Nutrition & Food Science, Volume 38, Issue 3.
Sugars were once credited with magical healing powers but are now seen like salt as an evil necessary in small doses but the cause of numerous diseases such as diabetes if taken in excess. Yet latest research suggests this view ignores the vital role played by more complex sugars in many biological structures, and the great therapeutic potential they have. This all emerged in a recent workshop organised by the ESF on the current state of the art in glycoscience, the study of complex sugars in biology. Delegates heard how glycoscience has become one of the hotbeds of biological and medical research, intimately involved in every aspect of metabolism and immune function. The big challenge now is to coordinate research in the field, bring together the relevant specialisms, and determine where to go next, according to the ESF workshops' convenor, Tony Merry from Manchester University in the UK.
The key point is that complex sugars are involved every time cells, and smaller structures within cells, communicate or bind with each other. This means they play a major part in all processes, including immune recognition and brain functions such as memory. It also means complex carbohydrates are often implicated in diseases where these functions go wrong, including auto-immune disorders such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as some cancers. The immune response often depends on the identity and location of sugars on antigens, which are the surface molecules on pathogens such as bacteria, or in principle any cells or smaller biological components such as protein complexes, that are recognised by the body's own machinery for detecting foreign bodies. Complex sugars such as polysaccharides are core components of antigens, alongside lipids (fatty compounds) and proteins. These antigens in effect determine the outcome of an infectious disease and the response by the host organism such as human structural differences between these antigens often account for the inability of many diseases to cross from one animal species to another and this is exemplified in the case of influenza where key molecules on the virus interact with different complex sugars in birds and humans.