ERC Starting Grant for chemist Sander van Kasteren

Is it possible for sugar patterns on cells to activate the immune system to combat cancer? ICI scientist Sander van Kasteren of Leiden University is using his grant from the European Research Council (ERC) to discover whether this is possible.

Developing more effective vaccines

Van Kasteren's research may well contribute to the development of more effective vaccines against cancer. He wants to make new substances to find out whether receptors (proteins that transmit signals from inside or outside the cell) recognise sugars and can detect differences in sugar patterns. 'The aim is to find out whether some sugar patterns activate the immune system against cancer better than others,' Van Kasteren explains.

Changes sometimes indicate illness

He likens cells to M&M’s. ‘Just like the sweets, cells are coated with a layer of sugar, only the layer of sugar around the cell is more complex. It is made up of different kinds of sugars and their composition differs strongly from one cell to another. Sometimes a change can be an indication of illness: the sugar layer on cancer cells, for example, can be very differeet from the layer on healthy neighbouring cells.'

Mobilising the immune system

Particular cells of the immune system - the dendritic cells - are able to recognise the difference between the sugars on healthy and unhealthy cells and use these differences to mobilise the immune system against cancer. To enable them to do this, they have available a whole arsenal of proteins on their surface, with which they are able to recognise the sugars on the cancer cell and activate the immune system. 

Complex system

Van Kasteren stresses that the research on understanding the sugars on the surface of cells - what they do and how they interact - is still in its early stages. 'It is an unbelievably complex system. Hundreds of different sugars are attached to the cell surface on thousands of different proteins and fats in and on the cell.'

Recognising cancer cells

It becomes even more complex because the dendritic cells themselves are also coated with a layer of sugar. Even the sugar-binding proteins on these cells are coated with sugars. As Van Kasteren explains, ‘This makes it an enormous challenge to find out exactly what these sugar-binding proteins recognise in a cancer cell. What we are hoping is that this knowledge will eventually contribute to developing more effective vaccines against cancer, but for the time being we first want to know what colours the receptors recognise in the M&Ms.'