A super sugar ball

A super sugar ball

Science opens the door for the understanding of what is happening in the world. Evidently researchers and scholars thirsty for knowledge and answers are needed, there is no doubt that scientists must be creative and inquisitive people for this job. This is the case of Antonio Muñoz, a Spanish Scholar from the School of Chemical Sciences and Engineering at Yachay Tech. Antonio has experience in Organic Chemistry with focus in Nanotechnology, and is one of the scientists who discovered the “Sugar Super Ball”, a molecule that could potentially change the way we look at diseases. In fact, he was responsible for designing and synthesizing this molecule and his research has been published in Nature Chemistry, one of the most prestigious publications in the world.

But, how does it work?

Normally our body’s immune system reacts in the presence of a pathogen detecting carbohydrates and proteins in its surface. Thanks to this process our body is able to fight a flu or block any parasites or bacteria in the system. Unfortunately, not every virus invades the body’s cellular system in the same manner. Viruses like Ebola or HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) use the DC-SIGN receptor (considered a universal receptor for the detection and reaction of the immune system when facing other pathogens) from dendritic cells to start the infection process. Dendritic cells are branched cells that at their ends have antigens, the substance that starts de production of antibodies with information so that other cells in the immune system detect molecular fragments identical to theirs.  “It’s like the ‘Most Wanted’ poster in a western movie, where it tells the police officers – in this case the cells –what to look for and destroy”, Antonio explains.

The idea of the super molecule is to become a battlement that prevents viruses like Ebola and HIV to access the body, and it does so by imitating the virus’ surface which is filled with carbohydrates. This way DC-SIGN is blocked and the virus cannot access the cellular system hence it is unable to reproduce. “What is achieved is something different that was is achieved with a retroviral that attacks the reproduction of the virus”, Antonio explains. “With the super molecule the virus is tackled from its roots, and it is not allowed inside the cells which means it cannot breed. In other words, the virus is forced to stay at the extracellular space, giving the immune system time to locate and destroy it”.

Viruses are not considered living beings, they don’t feed, and they are intracellular parasites that use our cellular system to breed. They relate, they recognize their surroundings thanks to their receptors, but they can’t reproduce by themselves. They need a cellular mechanism to reproduce: the infected cell. “The idea to create a super molecule began by understanding the virus’ behavior. We then thought of a molecule that would relate in the same way a virus does with our cells and that acts upon the same receptors the virus does”, Antonio explains.

What has been developed is a fullerene based molecule, fullerene is a huge family of carbon spheres compounds locked within each other, this is why the super molecule is football-shaped. It is composed by a central C60 molecule (with 60 Carbon atoms) with 13 additional molecules joint by a technique called click chemistry. “To a central C60 molecule, surrounded by manose (a type of sugar), we add 12 other C60 molecules which are also surrounded by sugars. As a result we obtain a sugar filled surface that imitates the virus to be attacked, in this case Ebola’s surface”, says Antonio.

The molecular construction of the glycomimetic (a compound that imitates a sugar compound) has been a synthetic challenge. It is the biggest molecular dendritic (branched) growth ever described in literature up to date. When two molecules with similar surfaces face each other, the super molecule and the virus, they compete for the same cellular receptors, with the advantage that the mimetic virus (the super molecule) is much more efficient in recognizing the cellular receptor than the natural virus.

Antonio uses Velcro as an example to explain the behavior of the super molecule. “Velcro is a small hook that sticks to an adhesive stripe; by itself it lacks a strong hold to a single fiber; but when many hooks and adhesive stripes are put together they have very strong adherence. This is the same function of the molecule: we use many sugars in one molecule to interact with cellular detectors”.

The super molecule or super sugar ball simply imitates the nature of the virus and tries to improve its interaction to inhibit the virus. So far there are positive results in an in vitro research with human cells at the laboratories; unfortunately time will pass by before we see a real application in humans. DC-SIGN is an exclusive trait of superior primates and live testing cannot be executed in laboratory mice.

As of now there is a starting point, a molecule that can be modified and applied as the base to fight other diseases. It can be used in the development of synthetically vaccines for infections in which classical vaccines are not viable, as in the case of cancer. Other uses for this molecule are a protein easily recognized by the immune system such as the protein of a bacteria that could be attached to it. “We have a completely symmetric ball filled with sugars. We are considering the possibility of including a different substitute hanging from another function. For example, a protein or photo sensitizer that could attack bacterial diseases resistant to classic antibiotics with light”, Antonio assures. It is reasonable to assume that this molecule could be tremendously effective in fighting diseases like AIDS. All of them are future applications and a work in progress at the European laboratories of Biotechnology and Chemistry.

Chemistry is essential for these type of works. Chemists design and discover the drugs. Evidently in the development of these drugs there is a team work where many professionals are involved like chemists, pharmaceuticals, biologists and on the final studies even doctors.


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