The National Institutes of Health has awarded an Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation scientist $2.9 million to investigate how glycans, a special type of sugar group, can perform many essential functions in the gut.
Humans have about 25,000 genes that instruct proteins to accomplish all the functions of life. A grain of rice has nearly double that number of genes. To achieve the level of complexity needed to operate a human body, many of our proteins must serve more than one purpose.
Proteins take on more jobs in the body when they are modified by glycans. Lijun Xia, M.D., Ph.D., leads OMRF’s Cardiovascular Biology Research Program. He has studied these sugar-modified proteins in the colon and blood vessels for more than 15 years.
“One set of genes may only encode one protein, but after modification, the same protein can have tens or hundreds of different functions,” said Xia, who holds the Merrick Foundation Chair in Biomedical Research.
Previous research from Xia’s lab has shown that disrupting the sugars in gastrointestinal proteins can lead to inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis and colon cancer. His team will use this four-year grant to better understand the reason for these reactions and identify potential treatment targets for the more than 3 million Americans impacted by these conditions.
“We understand that these glycans are essential for intestinal immune cells to create a strong barrier, protecting the body from foreign materials,” Xia said. “Now, we ask: How does this work?”
The grant is a continuation of previous funding for Xia’s study of glycoproteins in the colon. Courtney Griffin, Ph.D., OMRF vice president of research, said this is a recognition of the momentum coming from Xia’s lab.
“It’s a real testament to Dr. Xia that he has secured a third round of funding for this grant,” Griffin said. “It’s hard to compartmentalize breakthroughs into a four-year window, and the next round of funding might see those ideas mature into discoveries.”
Xia’s grant, 2R01DK085691-10A1, is funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, part of the NIH. Additional funding for Xia’s work was provided by the Oklahoma Center for Adult Stem Cell Research and Oklahoma City’s Presbyterian Health Foundation.