Glycoconjugates are found naturally in the body, but they are also an important class of drugs that include anything from cancer treatments to vaccines.

"We had always thought that all the biological function resides in the sugar. People did not appreciate that the scaffolds were active," said Tarun Dam, a principal investigator of the mechanistic glycobiology lab at Michigan Tech.

To determine if the scaffold had a role to play in biological reactions, Dam and his team built and tested two types of glycoconjugate molecules.

They had the same sugars and virtually identical shapes but were comprised of different scaffolds, one made of protein and the other a synthetic.

The scientists then tested how the different glycoconjugates reacted with biomolecules called lectins.

Lectins play an important role in numerous biological processes and are a target for many glycoconjugate drugs.

If the scaffolds had been inert, the reactions would have been identical.

However, the sugars on the protein scaffold reacted with the lectins differently.

"If the scaffolds are different, they can cause my drug to work one way and your drug to work another way, even though they have similar epitopes (sugars). Tweaking the scaffold can change the drug's function," Dam explained.

The discovery opens up new avenues for research, in particular the development of more and better pharmaceuticals, said the study published in the journal Biochemistry.

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