Sugar Splits (not as delicious as it sounds)

by Gabrielle DeMarco on November 22, 2009

By now, all of us at RPI are very familiar with a tiny glycosaminoglycan named heparin. If not, bone up on your RPI research knowledge here, here, and here. But, for those who pay a little bit more attention, the sugar is synonymous with the Robert Linhardt lab. His life-saving work with the famous and infamous blood thinner has captured national attention. And while the big research results, such as his discovery of the first fully synthetic alternative to the current and potentially dangerous version scraped from the bowels of overseas livestock, usually draw all the attention, Linhardt and his colleagues are also still hard at work learning the basics about this very complex carbohydrate.

In a recent paper, Linhardt is among an international group who is splitting apart heparin in a variety of ways to understand how it can be broken down into its separate components. One method of breaking down heparin is with heparinases. In the paper the researchers looked specifically at a heparinase called heparin lyase 1.

Don’t be intimidated by the names. Here is a little cell bio tip. When any biochemical substance ends in the word “lyase” you need only think of the words “cuts up.” Now, put “cuts up” in front of the first word – “cuts up heparin” – and you know exactly what heparin lyase 1 does. Go impress your family during Thanksgiving dinner. “Hey Grandpa, did you know that heparin lyase depolymerizes heparin at the iduronic acid?” Or less scientifically accurate, ”Dad, would you like me break out the poultry lyase to carve that turkey?”

For the researchers, the big questions were what exactly does heparin lyases cut heparin up into and, more importantly, why. Their findings provide important details on the various structural components of the heparinase.

Why spend time studying the spliting of sugar? Well, when people around the world began to get sick from contaminated doses of heparin, researchers, including Linhardt, determined the cause of the illness by breaking down the contaminated heparin with heparinases.  When broken apart, the pieces of the broken puzzle no longer fit together to form true and safe heparin and the contaminant could then be quickly pinpointed. A little more respect for the lyases right?