William York

Environmental portrait of William York.

Researchers at the University of Georgia are leading a team of scientists that developed an informatics portal, GlyGen, to bring “disparate information together in a unified way, reducing the learning curve for those new to glycoscience,” according to a UGA news release.

Glycans, or complex sugars, cover cells and function in biological processes such as interacting with other cells and fighting pathogens, according to the release. They can mediate cell division to slow the spread of tumor development with cancer, and their functions can shed light on influenza and other medical conditions.

UGA biochemistry and molecular biology professor William York, a co-principal investigator on the project, said the partnership is challenging because researchers must understand multiple disciplines in order to examine the role of glycans in human health.

“We’re integrating different types of multidisciplinary information that’s stored in different places and making it available to scientists in ways that allow them to understand the relationships that exist,” said York, a member of the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center within the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

Raja Mazumder, co-principal investigator and associate professor of biochemistry and molecular medicine at George Washington University’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences, is leading the data-integration team. Part of a partnership with GW, GlyGen is funded with a $10 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The project has been operating for two years and will last three more years, according to the release. With GlyGen now launched, the team is seeking user feedback for the next phase.

“This is a good place to start,” York said. “There are no other glycan and glycoscience resources out there that are as integrated.”

Experts in biology or biochemistry still face a “learning curve,” when approaching glycoscience, York said.

“You can’t be an expert in just one area and understand glycoscience,” York said. “You have to have a really multidisciplinary viewpoint.”

Part of the impetus for the project is the fact that glycoscience data “resides in many places and is not described using consistent language” for scientists to use and understand.

“We’re figuring out how to homogenize the data in terms of semantics so it can be usable, so researchers can make correlations to other types of data,” York said. “Up till now, it’s been a bit like the Wild West.”

The database seeks to aggregate data from different sources to create “a unified language.”

“For example, there’s the English language, and then there’s Shakespeare,” he said. “Having the English language is a wonderful, amazing thing. But Shakespeare is another layer on top, and it gets us to something a little more profound.”

York said glycans play a role in a wide variety of biological processes.

“All organisms have glycans, and if you get rid of them, you have an organism that’s sick or can’t live,” York said.

When studying cancer, examining glycan structures in healthy or diseased cells can indicate to researchers what biological mechanisms cause cancer spread — information that identifies targets for pharmaceutical development.

Glycans can be used to study influenza, too. When a new strain of flu appears, or a strain “jumps species,” like with avian flu to humans, molecules that recognize and process glycans change.

Understanding how glycans affect molecular recognition demonstrates the cause of initial infection and provides insight into blocking it.

According to York, the potential for studying glycoscience is “incredibly huge,” namely in research on cancer, infectious diseases and development and nutrition.

“We are not going to solve these problems with GlyGen, but our tools and information resources will help scientists develop specific hypotheses in these areas,” York said.

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