Artificial mucus may lead to new cancer therapies

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Researchers at the University of Utah are developing synthetic mucus mimics and studying how the biomaterial impacts human health.

Watch an interview with the researchers  

Read an ACS press release about this research: Artificial mucus identifies link to tumor formation

Source Article

“Synthetic mucins: From new chemical routes to engineered cells”
Presented at ACS Spring 2024 on March 18, 2024
Presenter: Jessica Kramer, Ph.D.


Narrator: Mucus production is something humans share with all mammals. It coats our reproductive and digestive tracts, as well any wet surfaces exposed to the outside world like our eyes and nostrils. At one point, scientists considered it to be merely a waste product, but researchers at the University of Utah are finding that this essential biomaterial plays an active role in our immune system.

Jessica Kramer, Ph.D.: When I started out, there was almost a black hole in this area of medicine, but 90% of surface cancers in places like lungs, breasts, gastric tissue all have abnormal mucus.

Narrator: This connection between mucus and cancer caught Kramer’s attention and led her towards the work she does now developing mucus mimics, specifically mimics of the sugar-coated proteins called mucins, which comprise the bulk of mucus.  

Mucin proteins are very distinct between individuals, and the sugars on the protein backbone vary widely between every living thing. Even members of the same species can have very different-looking mucins.  

Jessica Kramer, Ph.D.: Different people will have different compositions of their mucus, and that very strongly affects whether or not you might be susceptible to a viral infection or whether you might be susceptible to an epithelial cancer.

Narrator: This happens in part because when an immune cell makes contact with a cancer cell, for example, the immune system encounters the sugars first and not the protein backbone. In fact, Kramer and her team found that coronavirus infection could be prevented if the mucin protein backbone was adorned with the correct sugars. But working with mucus in a laboratory setting can be tricky, because of its structural variability and because it’s not exactly a shelf-stable material.

So, Kramer and her team combine sugar chemistry with peptide chemistry to engineer synthetic mucins. They then attach these synthetic mucins to live cell surfaces, creating a model that allows them to study things like tumor formation. This research joins a rapidly growing field, where scientists have discovered that not only is mucus critical to human health, but it may also hold the key to new ways of approaching disease prevention.

Jessica Kramer, Ph.D.: When mucus production goes awry, we see diseases, particularly cancer. And so, if you can target those types of cancers, you might target many different types of disease with one single drug. 

Narrator: The research is being presented at ACS Spring 2024, a meeting of the American Chemical Society.

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