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Scientists discover how sugars govern actions of antibodies in the immune system

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Posted October 7, 2015

We have heard a lot of bad things about sugar. However, it is pretty much inevitable and when scientists are speaking about sugar in our bodies they do not necessarily mean the sweet substance you put in your tea to taste better. In fact, there are sugars in our bodies that are quite important for certain functions.

Antibody molecules are shaped like a letter Y. The presence of sialic acid in the sugar (marked red) causes antibodies to attack and destroy their target cells less aggressively. This discovery in the future may help creating better treatments for autoimmune diseases. Image credit: mediadesk.uzh.ch

Antibody molecules are shaped like a letter Y. The presence of sialic acid in the sugar (marked red) causes antibodies to attack and destroy their target cells less aggressively. This discovery in the future may help creating better treatments for autoimmune diseases. Image credit: mediadesk.uzh.ch

Now researchers from the University of Zurich have discovered that a particular sugar in the antibodies determines whether one of the body’s own cells is destroyed or not.

Antibodies are guards of our bodies and form a biological defence shield from such pathogens as viruses or bacteria. They protect us against diseases. However, sometimes they can harm their own organism if they read situation wrong. In the case of certain autoimmune diseases antibodies do not just target alien substances in the body, whether it is a virus or a bacterium. They may also attack cells of the body they are destined to protect. This is why this research is so important – scientists hope that in the near future it will help creating innovative treatments for patients with autoimmune diseases.

Autoimmune diseases are very serious and deadly, because antibodies have means to kill virtually any cell in human body. Once an antibody binds to the surface of the cell, specific proteins are activated, which are called complement factors. They can damage the cell membrane and thus kill the cell. This may not be a problem if it is only several cells that look suspicious for our immune system, but in case of autoimmune diseases the effect may be massive. This is why researchers at the University of Zurich have conducted a research to better the knowledge about how antibodies recognize body cells.

The team of researchers has now discovered that sugar structure in the antibody is the key in the mechanism which determined whether antibody will kill a local cell. Scientists say that antibody basically consists of protein and coupled sugar groups. Previous researches demonstrated that antibodies with the sugar structure sialic acid are detectable more rarely in patients suffering from autoimmune diseases than in healthy people.

This implicates that this particular sugar structure in the antibody plays a key role in the complement-dependent destruction of the body’s own tissue. This can be easily confirmed – team of researchers observed that those patients suffering from an autoimmune disease who had more sialic-acid-carrying antibodies in their blood felt better. In fact, the more of this substance they had, the better they felt.

Isaak Quast, first author of the study, explained: “We managed to demonstrate that antibodies containing the sugar sialic acid only destroy the body’s own cells to a very limited extent. Our data indicates that the coupling of sialic acid to antibodies might be a potential strategy in treating patients with autoimmune diseases”.

This means that results of the research are significant for the efforts to treat autoimmune diseases. Although there are no reliable statistics available about the number of deaths attributed to autoimmune diseases every year, there certainly are a significant number of people suffering from them. Even though most of the cases can be cured with current therapies, which include using immunosuppression, treatments have side-effects that lower quality of life. This is why researches like this provide hope that someday treating autoimmune diseases will be much simpler and less damaging.

Source: UZH

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