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Ben Swarts in office

Altered sugar could fight disease

Research team’s work blocks growth of potentially deadly bacteria, may help those with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, TB and others

Contact: Gary H. Piatek



A Central Michigan University faculty member is helping to lead research that stopped the growth of a potentially deadly intestinal bacteria that feeds on trehalose, a widely used artificial sugar additive in food, cosmetics and drugs.

In the process, the team found that the molecule it created may have better potential for treating such neurodegenerative diseases as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, and possibly tuberculosis. 

An aha! moment

The ball began rolling after Ben Swarts, a chemistry and biochemistry faculty member in the College of Science and Engineering, read a research paper suggesting a link between trehalose and an increase in the antibiotic-resistant bacteria Clostridium difficile, or C. diff. Trehalose was approved as a food additive in the United States in 2000.

Unmodified trehalose is known to have potential for treating neurodegenerative diseases, based on research in mice. But because it can be broken down in humans, its efficacy might be reduced, Swarts said.

“I thought we might be able to design a different version of trehalose that can’t be broken down but will still retain the beneficial properties as a food additive and its potential in treatments for human diseases,” Swarts said.

A research team was formed among Swarts, students from his lab, and teams from three other universities.

Swapping atoms

The team altered the trehalose molecule by changing an oxygen atom to a sulfur atom. The idea came from previous research: When a similar swap was made in other sugars, those carbohydrates became resistant to breakdown.

The change made the compound unable to be consumed by highly virulent C. diff strains. 

Possibilities

There are other possible applications for the modified molecule and related compounds the team is working on, Swarts said.

For example, mosquitoes and other insects require trehalose, which is a naturally occurring sugar important to many forms of life and is essential for proper flight in insects, he said.

Swarts wants to find out if the team’s trehalose compounds can inhibit the pathways for that function, and many others, he said.

Swarts and Michael Conway, a faculty member in the College of Medicine, are discussing possible ways to get the modified trehalose molecule into mosquitoes, which can carry malaria, Zika and West Nile viruses.

Many types of bacteria also make their own trehalose, including mycobacteria, which causes tuberculosis in humans.

“It’s the chemistry of the trehalose derivatives that ties together all these possible applications,” he said.


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