According to the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control, drug resistant pathogens are responsible for 2 million illnesses, 23,000 premature deaths, and an estimated $20 billion dollars in health care costs per year (1,2). The rapid emergence of drug resistant pathogens threatens to undo nearly a century’s worth of biomedical advances, and the situation has become so dire that President Obama has recently made fighting antibiotic resistant pathogens a top national priority.
Newly emerging molecular engineering techniques may lead the way for next generation therapies designed to attack resistant microbes. One such strategy is metabolic glycoengineering, which is using unnatural monosaccharides to intercept the metabolic machinery of a cell to artificially install chemical “handles” on the surface. These chemical handles can then be exploited by performing reactions known as “click chemistry” to connect almost anything a researcher can think of to the surface of any cell.
Some of the most important structures of bacteria such as the peptidoglycan layer, lipopolysaccharides (LPS), teichoic acids, and capsule are comprised of extensive amounts of carbohydrates. Using glycoengineering, a physician may one day be able engineer those structures with unnatural monosaccharides to disrupt the adhesive properties, directly image, or target drugs to bacteria in a species specific manner–an unprecedented level of selectivity currently unachievable with our current regimen of antibiotics (Fig. 1).
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About the Author: Christopher Saeui is a fourth year Biomedical Engineering PhD student in the Kevin J. Yarema Laboratory for Cell and Carbohydrate Engineering studying the epigenetic and metabolic mechanisms that alter glycosylation in cancer.