Carbohydrates Influence Stem Cells, Tuberculosis

In Professor Laura Kiessling’s lab and classroom, carbohydrates have nothing to do with bread or breakfast cereal. The Laurens Anderson Professor of Biochemistry studies the biological roles of glycans, or carbohydrates attached to fats and proteins, that play an important role in cell development, immune system function and disease.

All cells on earth decorate themselves with a thick coat of these carbohydrate structures, she said. The complex coats are the face a cell puts out to the world, like a molecular ZIP code telling what it is. Kiessling studies how the coats are built. By manipulating them, she has discovered a better way to grow stem cells and new approaches for treating diseases such as tuberculosis, which affects a third of the world’s population.

Kiessling loves working at the intersection of two disciplines. Chemistry gives her the tools to build the new molecules she uses to discover how biological systems work. The heart of her work lies in carbohydrates. Human pluripotent stem cells need to bind to a surface as they multiply, and Kiessling takes advantage of the carbohydrate cell coatings to create surfaces that bind to human pluripotent stem cells, she said. Her surface promotes propagation and produces a more uniform and safer product. Her lab is also discovering ways in which the carbohydrate surfaces can help stem cells differentiate – or become any of the cells in the human body.

Another line of investigation showed how to block a key enzyme that inhibits the development of the carbohydrate coat on mycobacteria, preventing the cell from dividing. Mycobacteria cause leprosy and tuberculosis, which has mutated to produce extensively drug-resistant strains found across the northern hemisphere. “Clearly we need new strategies to treat these bugs,” Kiessling said. Her work opens the door for new drug therapies.

Professor Anderson introduced Kiessling to carbohydrates when she joined the UW-Madison faculty more than two decades ago, attending her group meetings and sharing advice and references. He had a special ability to build carbohydrates for study, Kiessling said. He was working with mycobacteria when he retired.

Holding the Anderson professorship gives her flexibility as state and federal dollars shrink, Kiessling said. With the funds associated with the professorship, she can hire a post doc for research and administrative assistance for a Chemistry-Biology Interface Training Grant that supports students across campus. “These sorts of contributions now can have so much more effect than they would have even 10 years ago,” she said.

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