Experts in nutrition science have long fretted about the correlation between diets that are rich in certain foods—such as red meat and dairy products—with an increased risk of heart attacks, cancer, and other diseases associated with inflammation.
Ajit Varki, a UC San Diego professor of molecular and cellular medicine, has identified a potential explanation—from an inflammatory response to a type of sialic acid sugar molecule called N-glycolyneuraminic acid, or Neu5Gc. Varki, who has been working in the area for more than a decade, has shown that Neu5Gc provokes a strong immune response in some people, likely worsening conditions in which chronic inflammation is a major issue.
Varki also has moved to commericalize his research findings by co-founding Sialix, a bicoastal startup based Cambridge, MA, and San Diego. The company plans to develop nutritional supplements and drugs that are intended to moderate or inhibit the body’s inflammatory response to Neu5Gc. Sialix also has targeted cancers that accumulate Neu5Gc.
Sialic acid sugar molecules like Neu5Gc are found on many proteins, and normally coat the surface of animal cells. These sugar molecules serve a key role in interacting with other cells, and play an important role in bacterial and viral entry into cells. While Neu5Gc is found in most mammals, including primates, humans somehow lost the ability to make Neu5Gc. As a result, the cells of human beings are coated instead with Neu5Ac, the sialic acid precursor to Neu5Gc that differs from Neu5Gc by a single oxygen atom.
The difference has long been known, and the presence of Neu5Gc in our diet was not deemed significant because scientists believed that healthy human immune systems did not react to it.
But Varki argues that’s not the case after all. He started Sialix in 2006 in a bid to moderate the body’s immune response to … Next Page »