Grant awarded for study on glycobiology

Christina Eddings

The National Institute of Health awarded a $400,000 grant to Steven B. Oppenheimer, Ph.D. and his Center for Cancer and Developmental Biology, for research conducted on glycobiology. The $400,000 is part of a total of $41 million awarded to the Consortium for Functional Glycomics, for which Oppenheimer is an investigator. Both the grant and Oppenheimer’s membership with the CFG brings focus to CSUN and the research at the center, and allows his team of students to further their studies on the spread of cancer cells in the human body.

According to Oppenheimer, glycobiology can be thought of as sugar biology, because it involves the study of sugar carbohydrates and how they bind to cells. The focus of research in his lab is the metastasis, or spread, of cells mutated by sugar carbohydrates. This is an essential process in the spread of cancer and other diseases. Understanding how cancer cells mutate and spread will help scientists to develop drugs that can stop the spread of cancer and other diseases.

“Most people don’t know this, but cancer is 99 percent curable. If you catch it before it spreads, usually you can cure it. Once it has spread, it is much more difficult to cure,” Oppenheimer said.

He said a lack of education passed down from generation to generation and information doctors do not divulge to patients are the common factors behind people’s misconceptions about the disease.

He added, “As people become more educated, cancer becomes more curable in earlier stages.”

Oppenheimer said that physiologically, the ideal drug would mimic the way bacteria and other pathogenic organisms bind to cells. He explained that the organisms attack healthy cells via sugar-binding receptors on the cell surface. If the drug can get to the healthy cells first, they can block access to the cells and the attacking organisms will not be able to attach.

“It’s like a lock and key,” Oppenheimer said, using his hands to demonstrate the way they bond.

Oppenheimer said glycobiology was obscure for a very long time, with most scientists basing their research on proteins and the study of genes and DNA. He said one of the reasons NIH is putting so much money into the CFG to fund research such as his is because it has not been well-studied.

“It’s much easier to work with genes, because they directly code for proteins but not sugars. Sugars play a key role in human health and diseases,” he said.

Oppenheimer said the grant has placed CSUN in the realm of what he calls “big science,” a term he equates with Ivy League universities that are known for their research.

“We are a little place. We aren’t a research one university like Berkeley or Harvard. We are a Masters level university. We can never reach that level of science?but now we have the ability to do anything we want in ‘big science,'” Oppenheimer said.

Oppenheimer said the program director for the CFG contacted him and encouraged him to apply for membership. He was reluctant at first, but at her urging sent in an application. He was surprised to find that he had been selected as an investigator for the CFG.

The CFG is a research institution set up to support researchers around the country studying glycobiology and how proteins and carbohydrates interact with cells. Oppenheimer said he and his students conduct their research and send the samples to CFG for analyses, which Oppenheimer said could cost “anywhere from tens to thousands of dollars.”

“It’s a major honor and a major opportunity for our program,” he said. “Over 100 students will benefit from being part of the consortium. ? Sugars are one of the last giant frontiers in biology.”