Global Challenges/Chemistry Solutions

Combating Disease: Much more than pasta and potatoes

Environmental Science & Technology

April 14, 2009

A scientist uses the carbohydrate synthesizer,
capable of producing significant amounts of
carbohydrate molecules that were nearly
inaccessible until now.
Credit: Peter H. Seeberger, Max-Planck Institute
(Click for high-resolution version)


Today’s topic is research on combating disease.
Much more than just pasta and potatoes, this
discovery could help carbohydrates form the
basis of revolutionary new vaccines and drugs
to battle malaria, HIV, and a bevy of other diseases.


When you think carbohydrates, spaghetti, rice and freshly baked loaves of bread usually come to mind. A group of scientists in Germany led by Peter Seeberger see carbs a bit differently. Much more than just pasta and potatoes, they envision carbohydrates as the basis of revolutionary new vaccines and drugs to battle malaria, HIV, and a bevy of other diseases.

Speaking at the 237th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, Seeberger, Ph.D., reported a major advance toward opening the doors of a carbohydrate-based medicine chest for the 21st Century. He described development of an automated carbohydrate synthesizer, a device that builds these intricate molecules in a few hours — rather than the months or years required with existing technology.

“This was the first time we report now on a new prototype synthesizer that is highly reliable, very fast and can be operated by somebody who is not experienced in chemistry. That opens up a lot of applications — not only diagnostics but also vaccines.”

The automated synthesizer is now the fastest method to make complex carbohydrates. According to Seeberger, there are currently no competitive methods available.

Carbohydrates are tough molecules to build because of their complicated, branched structure. So instead of trying to build carbohydrates from scratch, scientists today use molecules isolated from nature, a painstaking process that could take months.

Seeberger’s leading goal is to create an inexpensive, carbohydrate-based vaccine for malaria. It is only one of over a dozen vaccines from Seeberger’s lab headed for clinical trials. Carbohydrate-based vaccines could target some of today’s most serious infectious diseases, including antibiotic-resistant infections and HIV.

“A more immediate app for carbohydrates is likely to be in carbohydrate-based vaccines. They are right now two carbohydrate based vaccines for small children on the market. These are blockbuster drugs — they protect small children from infectious material diseases including meningitis. …

“I mainly focused my presentation on our carbohydrate-based vaccine against Malaria…   We are now getting very close to clinical trials. We have just finished preclinical trials and we hope to have a cost of under 1$ per child, which is particularly important for diseases like Malaria and Leishmaniasis. These are diseases that mainly affect adults and children in the developing world. Right now, we have a total of 15 carbohydrate antigens that are entering different stages of the clinical development process to animal testing and finally, the clinic.”

Smart Chemists/Innovative Thinking

Smart chemists. Innovative thinking. That’s the key to solving global challenges of the 21st Century. Please check our full-length podcasts on combating disease. For the American Chemical Society, I’m Adam Dylewski in Washington.

Peter H. Seeberger, Ph.D.