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Search for new therapeutic approaches using glycolization: sugar molecules modify the properties of proteins

(Vienna, 19 April 2016) Together with a partner from the biotech sector, MedUni Vienna is starting a project funded by the Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG) to create new and improved properties of antibodies using an innovative approach based on glycolization. This process involves cells being covered with an "icing" that imparts different properties to the surface proteins.

All biological processes are based on the precise activity and regulation of proteins, small molecular tools in the cell. Modern biochemical methods not only enable us to increasingly decipher how these proteins work but also how their function can be regulated and changed by means of chemical modifications. Of the many chemical modifications that can be made to a protein, glycolization is particularly valuable. Glycolization is the term used for "decorating" proteins with different sugar molecules. Practically all proteins on the cell surface are decorated with sugar molecules.

This "icing" on the proteins has a substantial impact upon their function and, in particular, determines the interaction partners of the surface molecules. The specificity of antibodies, proteins whose job it is to identify and bond to foreign substances, is substantially changed by glycolization.

"We use cell lines that we have genetically modified to carry out different glycolization processes," explains Emilio Casanova from the Institute for Pharmacology at MedUni Vienna. “If we construct a certain sugared protein on the surface of these modified cells, we create complex collections of cells, which are only distinguished by the glycolization of this protein. It is as if each cell has its own particular color of icing."

For the very first time, this method provides an approach for modifying the glycolization patterns on surface molecules in many different ways. The aim is to create a large complex library of differently glycolized proteins on the surface of cells. 

These cells can then be examined in functional tests to investigate their bonding properties. “High-throughput methods enable me to examine my collection of differently glycolized antibodies – specific immune system protein molecules – to determine their bonding properties and thus to optimize them. Many therapeutic antibodies have captured the market as so-called biopharmaceuticals, without any optimization at all. I am confident that this will help us improve modern treatments even further in the future," states Anton Bauer from "The Antibody Lab".

Sponsored joint project
This project is aimed at optimizing new therapeutic antibodies and the FFG is funding development of this research idea as part of the "CarboLIB" project to the tune of 665,000 euros. The collaborating partner "The Antibody Lab GmbH" ( is a Viennese biotech company that uses its antibody know-how for the development of diagnostic products as well as the development of medicines.