Tumours develop sophisticated strategies to escape the immune defence. One of these strategies is the modification of the cells' sugar coat. Specific immune cell receptors bind to these sugars, thereby preventing the tumour cell from being discovered by the immune system. Medics from the University of Tübingen are investigating the mechanisms involved and are looking for therapeutic targets.
Once an exact image is available, Müller is hoping to find suitable targets that prevent harmful processes. “The knowledge of the exact structure of the sugar-siglec complex will potentially enable us to develop specific inhibitors, i.e. small molecules that bind to the siglecs and prevent sialic acids from binding. Normally, such small molecules can be well tolerated. Metabolic problems will most likely not occur. And allergies to such small molecules are not known,” said Müller.In summary, research on tumour glycobiology is still in its infancy, and many relationships still have to be clarified. For example, sialic acids are also found on the surface of certain leukaemia cells. “T-cell leukaemias have sialic acids, but not so childhood B-cell leukaemias. But the prognosis for patients with T-cell leukaemia is worse than that for patients with B-cell leukaemia,” said Müller explaining that further research is required to elucidate the mechanisms involved.