Discovery

Searching for a Solution in Sugar Shields

Understanding the organization in something as simple as sugars may hold the answer to building a defense against the onset of infections, including viruses.

by Sara Walsh
Preethi Chandran, PhD

Understanding the organization in something as simple as sugars may hold the answer to building a defense against the onset of infections, including viruses.

In 2020, Preethi Chandran, PhD, chemical engineering associate professor and director of graduate studies at Howard University, received a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the biophysics of viruses’ “sugar shields,” an external coating that surrounds a virus and makes it difficult for the body to fight against.

More recently, Chandran and co-investigators Sergei Nekhai, PhD, of Howard University, and Seble Kassaye, MD, of Georgetown University, were awarded an additional pilot from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – an honor for which Chandran received a personal congratulations from District of Columbia Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Chandran speaks of her team’s research with both measured excitement and a sense of urgency: “Right now, we’re trying to see if there are specific rules between how the sugars on the virus and the sugars on a host adhere to each other. These adhesion patterns could determine where the virus is going to feel comfortable and stay.”

Currently, the team’s focus has pivoted to exploring how a pathogen’s sugar shield allows it to maneuver through mucus. While Chandran is hesitant to make any predictions, her work has prompted her to contemplate how better understanding mucus and learning how to strengthen it could prevent the more intense and costly treatments necessary when viruses enter the body.

Chandran’s respect for nature is an integral part of her work. While her research could create means for reinforcing the mucus protection, she also believes that a better understanding of how nature designed the mucus to protect us is critical in our rapidly evolving environments and lifestyles. Chandran takes a holistic perspective, saying, “Some of the stuff we unwittingly do may be weakening the mucus. Maybe we can prevent that from happening.” With the most recent NIH pilot, Chandran and her team expanded the scope of their inquiry, examining how sugars on HIV interact with mucus.

As a professor, Chandran is deeply grateful for her students’ role in the research and readily admits, “I can’t do any of this investigative research without them.” When the undergraduates on her team couldn’t meet this past year in the lab, she sought out innovative ways to involve them. Instead of examining how sugars present on pathogens modified the environment, she realized her students could test to see if the same principles held true in food. She ordered Amazon deliveries of guar gum, acacia, and locust bean gum (food grade polymers containing these sugars) to their homes. The study provided feasibility data and also boosted morale.

Chandran’s mindful process reveals her humility for her place in the wider web of discovery. When speaking of her work, she uses the story of the blind men trying to assemble an elephant by investigating different parts of its body, laughingly saying that her research is probably just the “tail of the story or the foot of the story.” Chandran acknowledges, “By itself it might not make deep impact, but when you combine it with what other scientists are doing, it creates this whole picture that enables progress.”

This story appears in the Winter 2022 issue.

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