Exhibition reveals how ‘sugar coatings’ on cells can help safeguard our health


The University of Manchester will reveal how ‘sugar coatings’ on cells can help safeguard our health at the Manchester Science Festival.

The University’s Manchester Institute of Biotechnology will showcase the ‘Complex Life of Sugars’ in an interactive exhibition which will feature a ‘cell invaders’ video game and enzyme experiments to detect sugars in different foodstuffs.

Sugars provide the building blocks of life, and most of the Earth’s biomass. They provide energy for living cells and are important molecules in food and medicines. We now know that they also play a key role in how cells communicate, from fertilisation to the body’s response to infection and cancer.

The exhibit will showcase how the study of these sugars can help improve our lives. Understanding their interactions gives us the exciting new opportunity to develop new foods, medicines and healthcare treatments. The possibilities are extensive, including being able to quickly tell the difference being between pandemic, seasonal and bird flu and develop correct treatments quickly. As the sugars that coat our cells are all unique - like our fingerprints - we could use this information to make personalised medicines and treatments in the future.

Sugars make up the majority of biomass on earth and are often used in the food and flavour industry. However, it is less well known that complex structures made from sugar – known as glycans – decorate viruses and cells in animals, plants and bacteria. It is these structures that allow recognition and signalling, and by understanding these interactions, scientists can develop new therapeutics such as sugar-mimic Tamiflu which stockpiled during the recent swine and bird flu epidemics. 
Dr Nicholas Weise, Manchester Institute of Biotechnology

“Tamiflu closely resembles the particular sugar used by the influenza virus to latch onto and enter certain cells for infection. As such, its presence in the body causes the virus to bind the drug instead of cells surfaces, making it an effective antiviral agent.”

A research group at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, led by Professor Sabine Flitsch, focusses on the development of synthetic and analytical tools designed to allow scientists to construct and study medically-relevant glycans in the laboratory.

Through the development of novel techniques at the institute scientist are now closer to being able to understand the mechanisms of cell-cell and pathogen-host interactions and even synthesise molecules for the treatment of various conditions.

The Complex Life of Sugars takes place from October 24 to 28 in the Textiles Gallery on the ground floor of the Museum of Science and Industry, and entry is free of charge. For more about the University's involvement in the Science Festival, visit

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