Virus's 'taste' for unusual sugar could lead to new cancer treatments

April 10, 2018 by Ryan O'hare, Imperial College London
Human adenoviruses (pictured) could hold the key to new therapies for aggressive cancers. Credit: Imperial College London

The way in which a rare virus attacks cells could hold the key to new therapies for aggressive brain and lung cancers, according to new research.

Human adenoviruses (HAdVs) are common microorganisms which can cause eye infections as well as respiratory and gastrointestinal infections in humans and animals.

Now, an international team including Imperial College London, together with research groups in Sweden, Germany, and Hungary, has discovered a new mechanism used by a rare type of the virus (HAdV-52) to attack .

In a paper, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the group explains that the HAdV-52 virus binds to a specific type of sugar on the surface of cells, called polysialic , which is more prevalent on cells of brain and lung cancers.

According to the researchers, the discovery opens up new opportunities for the development of virus-based therapies, which could potentially use this adenovirus to target and kill cancerous cells.

Attacking host cells

Adenoviruses use a fibre protein on their surface to attach to cells, in order to gain entry and hijack the host cell's machinery so they can replicate.

Researchers have uncovered how a rare type of the virus (HAdV-52) attack host cells. Pictured is the adenovirus under an electron microscope. Credit: Wikicommons/Graham Colm

It was known that the viruses use this protein to tether themselves to the surface of the host cell, but HAdV-52 also has a second, shorter fibre protein, whose function was unclear.

But in the latest study, researchers discovered that this shorter fibre binds specifically to polysialic acid.

Polysialic acid is a carbohydrate typically found in the developing brain, however, previous studies have shown that the sugar is also present in a number of cancer tissue samples.

In these studies it was also frequently associated with tumours that are highly aggressive and fail to respond to traditional treatments, resulting in poor prognosis for the patient.

The team suggest that while viral-based cancer treatments may be a number of years away, HAdV-52 could potentially be used to target which overexpress the sugar, hunting them down to infect and kill them.

Dr Annasara Lenman, from Umeå University and first author of the study said: "We knew earlier that the short fiber binds to sialic acid, but we did not how the underlying carbohydrate chain was constructed."

Human adenoviruses (HAdVs) can cause infections of the eye, respiratory tract and gastrointestinal tract. Credit: Niklas Anberg
"To our knowledge, this is the first time that polysialic acid has been reported to function as a cellular receptor for a human viral pathogen," said Dr Yan Liu, the Project Leader of the Carbohydrate Microarray Facility in the Glycosciences Laboratory at Imperial.

"This finding is a good example of how our carbohydrate microarray system enables discoveries of receptors on cells that viruses bind to at the initial stages of infection."

Professor Ten Feizi, Director of the Glycosciences Laboratory at Imperial, said: "Perhaps the most important known function of polysialic acid is its involvement in the development of the brain. However, not much is known about how polysialic acid interacts with its environment in the brain."

Professor Feizi added: "Our research makes it pertinent to investigate whether polysialic acid plays a part in brain development by interacting with specific molecules in the ."

"Using viruses to target key markers on the surface of cells could be one avenue to tackle cancers which do not respond to traditional treatments.

"While these treatments may be a number of years from the clinic, in future they could offer hope to patients with aggressive cancers which currently have very poor prognoses."

Explore further: New insight about how viruses use host proteins to their advantage

More information: Annasara Lenman el al., "Polysialic acid is a cellular receptor for human adenovirus 52," PNAS (2018).

Related Stories

Stealth virus for cancer therapy

January 31, 2018

Scientists from the University of Zurich have redesigned an adenovirus for use in cancer therapy. To achieve this, they developed a new protein shield that hides the virus and protects it from elimination. Adapters on the ...

Stem cell research reveals clues to brain disease

July 18, 2013

(Medical Xpress)—The development of new drugs for improving treatment of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease is a step closer after recent research into how stem cells migrate and form circuits in the brain.

Recommended for you

Coffee-based colloids for direct solar absorption

March 22, 2019

Solar energy is one of the most promising resources to help reduce fossil fuel consumption and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to power a sustainable future. Devices presently in use to convert solar energy into thermal ...

EPA adviser is promoting harmful ideas, scientists say

March 22, 2019

The Trump administration's reliance on industry-funded environmental specialists is again coming under fire, this time by researchers who say that Louis Anthony "Tony" Cox Jr., who leads a key Environmental Protection Agency ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.