Targeting the sugar coating of cancer cells: FIU takes lead in cancer research

Researchers at the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine are investigating evolving theories that share a single premise: A deeper understanding of the role that sugars play in the development and progression of cancer will lead to better treatments and even cures.

While most people that hear the word “sugar” think only of its role in nutrition or diabetes, physicians and scientists are becoming aware that structures comprising chains of sugar molecules, or glycans, critically affect all aspects of human health and disease.

FIU has established a new Translational Glycobiology Institute, which Provost and Executive Vice President Kenneth G. Furton recently approved for Florida Board of Governors center designation.

TGIF, as it is known in shorthand, has already gained national attention for its cutting-edge studies.

Only a handful of glycobiology labs; which specifically study the structure, function and biology of sugars, also called glycans ― have received federal funding in the United States and, remarkably, three of them are part of the Institute at FIU.

The National Institutes of Health National Cancer Institute has awarded three FIU researchers, from a national total of 10, with large multi-center grants to fund cancer glycobiology research.

“It’s unusual that three labs in one location have funding,” said Karl Krueger, of the National Cancer Institute Alliance of Glycobiologists for Cancer Research. “The advantage of this collaboration is that we move forward much faster if we work together.”

Glycans are complex sugars on the surfaces of cells that have, in the past, been difficult to study. Thanks to advances in science and technology, researchers know that changes in the structure of glycans, or even a change in their numbers, can drive cancer development. They also recognize that certain glycans are markers for tumor growth. These discoveries have made it possible to develop transformative therapies.

This new research activity and the emphasis on translational science ― investigational work directly linked to creating real-world therapies and medical procedures ― is led by Dr. Robert Sackstein. The renowned bone marrow transplant physician and biomedical researcher arrived at FIU from Harvard in 2019 and brought with him an innovative spirit and the drive to harness research in the pursuit of eradicating cancer once and for all.

“FIU is making a huge investment in developing this research program,” Sackstein said. “This is a forward-thinking, progressive approach to helping patients in need. While our labs have different focuses, we complement each other. We wanted to cover the different cancers that cover the entire body so that we can understand how glycans displayed on cells within the various tissues fuel the development of cancer and control the ability of cancer to metastasize.”

The Institute currently has more than 22 researchers working in its labs and 14 associate members working in collaborative activities in other Florida research institutions, with additional growth planned. It comprises more than 6,000 square feet of space and is equipped with state-of-the art tools. The centerpiece: a multimillion-dollar Thermo Scientific Orbitrap Eclipse Tribrid Mass Spectrometer necessary for the precise analysis of glycans on cells. FIU researchers are using the device in work that touches upon cancers afflicting the brain, lungs, GI tract, reproductive system, blood and skin.

Also essential to bringing advances in the lab to patients as quickly as possible, the researchers are working directly with physicians at area cancer centers. Through programs such as Miami Cancer Institute’s Biospecimen Repository Facility, they have access to tissue and blood samples from cancer patients. These specimens are central to their studies.

High expectations are focused on scientists such as Karen Abbott, associate director of the institute whose groundbreaking work in the area of ovarian and other reproductive cancers led to the development of an antibody that targets the glycans on ovarian cancer cells. She is also working on using this antibody as a biomarker assay to detect ovarian cancer through a blood test. “Bringing together our resources, protocols and training gives us a synergy,” she said of the collaborative nature of the Institute. “We bring different perspectives to one problem, cancer, and we enhance each other’s research.”

Charles Dimitroff, a colleague of Sackstein’s at Harvard, serves as director of the Institute. He brings with him years of work concentrated on colorectal and prostate cancer, leukemia, melanoma and immunotherapy. “As our tools and methods have improved, we have impacted our knowledge on cancer,” he said. “When I began my career, curing cancer was really a pie-in-the-sky thought. Now, a center like ours can build the necessary momentum to develop cures for human disease. It is very exciting.”

As a translational facility, TGIF aims to bring advances in the lab to patients as quickly as possible. The researchers are collaborating closely with HWCOM faculty members who treat cancer patients. They exchange information and discuss the most pressing needs. In addition, through the support of the Baptist Health-South Florida/Miami Cancer Institute’s Biospecimen Repository Facility, researchers at TGIF receive tissue and blood samples from cancer patients for their studies.

While a cure for cancer has a hopeful yet indefinite timeline, the Institute’s work moves toward that end goal. And, in the meantime, its discoveries are leading to the development of diagnostic tests that indicate cancer progression.

“This is a fight against a disease that causes immense suffering and is the second leading cause of death world-wide,” Sackstein said. “The Institute is growing quickly and moving at a pace like no other facility. Though we have greatly succeeded in getting grants to support our work, we also need the community to step up and provide more financial resources so that we can further accelerate our progress and can also perform needed research to cure cancers that are currently not covered by grant support. The patients need our help, and, working with the assistance of our supporters, we will save lives.”