A new group of molecules, discovered by researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA), could help fight the spread of cancer and other diseases.

The new molecules are synthetic derivatives of a natural product known as UDP-Galactose, and block the activity of a group of enzymes called glycosyltransferases. Glycosyltransferases are used by biological cells to turn simple sugars into elongated sugar chains and branched structures.

The findings could lead to a significant therapeutic advance in the treatment of cancer, inflammation and infection.

Many biological cells -- including cancer cells and bacterial cells -- are literally covered by a coating of sugar, which influences the way cells communicate with their environment and with each other. For example, when a cancer spreads through the body or a bacterium infiltrates its human host many of the contacts the rogue cells make with other cells are through these sugars on their cell surface.

In order to form the complex sugar structures that decorate their surface, cells rely on gylcosyltransferases to join individual sugar building blocks together. The researchers have found that synthetic UDP-Galactose derivatives block these enzymes effectively. Thus, the molecules can potentially be used to interfere with harmful biological processes such as cancer metastasis and bacterial infection.

“This exciting discovery of a potent enzyme inhibitor with a completely new mechanism of action has considerable therapeutic potential in cancer, inflammation and infection,” Nature quoted lead author Dr Gerd Wagner of UEA as saying.

“Our results also provide a general strategy for how to design and improve such inhibitors in the future. The ‘snapshots’ we have taken of one of these enzymes, together with the new inhibitor itself, can provide very valuable guidance for the development of new anti-cancer and anti-infective drug candidates,” he added.

The study has been published online by the journal Nature Chemical Biology.

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