Back in 2011 while in the lab of Katharina Ribbeck I started working on a project funded by the Johnson and Johnson Corporation. At the time J&J provided us with funds to simply explore some aspects of mucosal health. Our goal was to better understand how our mucus layer works to protect us and to elaborate new strategies for mucosal repair. In addition to this “no string attached” funding model offered by J&J (which is rare today) we had great support from J&J staff. Julie Hirsch and Anthony Geonnotti were particularly involved and provided experimental data and valuable feedback throughout the project.
This work resulted in interesting insights in the special role of glycosylation in the hydration and lubrication properties of mucins. This is important since decreased and altered glycosylation of mucins occur in several diseases and can, for instance, lead to dry eye or dry mouth symptoms. But even more exciting to me was our attempt to compensate for the lost of glycans on mucins molecules.
While working on understanding the effect of mucin deglycosylation we established a model for defective mucins, which had a decreased ability to hydrate and lubricate surfaces. We decided to replace the missing glycan structures by synthetic polyethylene glycol (PEG) polymers. We got the PEG to stick to the mucins by using glycan-binding proteins (lectin) as anchors. Obviously PEG molecules are far from recapitulating the complex glycan structures decorating the mucin molecules, but it was close enough! The attachment of PEG to the altered mucin increased hydration and lubrication of mucins on surfaces.
This work took a while to be fully completed, and we owe a great deal to Prof. Oliver Lieleg and his group for helping bring much of the tribology data into the paper. The paper was published in September of 2015 in Advanced Materials Interfaces and is available in Open Access. A patent was also granted earlier this year.
The core message of this story is told in this picture that, I hope, is accessible to most. You can find this infographic (large scale) and several others in the outreach section of the website.