To explain her work, Stanford chemistry professor Carolyn Bertozzi, PhD, often turns to analogies. Cancer cells, she says, are like M&M’S with a hard sugar coating. As she recently explained on the “Future of Everything” radio show, the coating’s function has remained a mystery for years, but now researchers are making real progress.
“We have come to think of these sugars as kind of a 2-D barcode. The patterns are different on different cell types, and yet all of the cells of a certain type have a common pattern,” Bertozzi told show host Russ Altman, MD, PhD. “So there is a code there, but we don’t quite have the means to scan it and we don’t yet understand it.”
So what do the barcodes look like on cancer cells? Bertozzi describes them as a superposition of two barcodes — the original cell’s barcode and a new cancerous one. And the cancerous barcode looks similar for many different cancers. Researchers have found that these sugar barcodes on cancer cells can promote disease progression by turning off the immune system. “They basically tell immune cells, ‘There’s nothing to see here. Move along. I’m perfectly fine and healthy,’” Bertozzi said.
Using another analogy, she explained in the podcast that the cancer cells put on makeup to look fabulous and mesmerize the immune system, fooling it into thinking that the cells are healthy so the cancer can progress unimpeded. Her lab is developing a way to strip off this makeup.
Her team has developed a way to use enzymes to cut off the sugars, making the cells available for immune cells to target. She explained: “They were enzymes that normally play a role in digesting sugars. So what we’ve done is repurposed these enzymes so we can target them right to the surface of the cancer cell. And literally they’ll just go across the surface of the cell mowing off the sugars, like stripping off the makeup. And then the cells can be seen for what they truly are.”
Bertozzi is also involved in a company that hopes to bring this “lawn mower” technology to the clinic within the next two years, but they first need to get good preclinical data as proof-of-concept. The company is currently focused on developing new treatments for breast, lung and kidney cancers.