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October 20, 2008   Columns Articles | Inside UGA | $8.3 million NIH grant will help study glycans’…
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Michael Pierce

$8.3 million NIH grant will help study glycans’ role in stem, cancer cells

Sam Fahmy

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By Sam Fahmy | October 20, 2008

The National Institutes of Health has awarded UGA a five-year, $8.3 million grant to further its research into the role cell-surface sugars known as glycans play in the development of stem cells and cancer cells. The grant allows the university to continue its role as a National Center for Research Resources Center for Biomedical Glycomics.

"The UGA Complex Carbohydrate Research Center is one of the few comprehensive facilities in the world equipped to study the role of glycans in human health," said Michael Pierce, the principal investigator on the grant and Mudter Professor in Cancer Research. "With this grant, our team will continue to develop state-of-the-art technology to analyze cell-surface markers of stem cells and cancer cells."

Senior investigators on the grant are Steve Dalton, Kelley Moremen, Michael Tiemeyer, Ron Orlando, Lance Wells and Parastoo Azadi.

While genomics seeks to understand an organism's genes and proteomics concentrates on proteins, the field of glycomics focuses on the sugars that adorn cells and proteins and the role these sugars play in processes as diverse as development, the immune response and the formation and spread of tumors.

"Cell-surface sugars offer tremendous untapped potential as molecular fingerprints that can distinguish cancer cells from normal cells and stem cells from other cell types, and so on," said David Lee, UGA vice president for research. "Progress in this area promises early diagnostic tests as well as new therapeutic targets and vaccines. Yet cell-surface glycans are extraordinarily challenging molecules to characterize, requiring major investments in highly specialized technology and expertise. Of course, this is precisely why their potential has not yet been realized.

"Owing to the foresight of both former and present UGA leaders, we are fortunate to have the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center, which is one of only two or three organized entities in the world with the requisite know-how," Lee added. "I am confident that with the leadership of the CCRC, UGA will have significant impacts on human health in areas such as cancer, diabetes and infectious diseases."

In conjunction with the NIH grant, the Georgia Research Alliance, a public-private partnership that supports university research with the goal of stimulating economic growth, has awarded UGA $750,000 as matching funds for equipment purchases.

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