Sweet success: $20M in government funding brings new talent in sugar research to Canada and UAlberta

Glycomics researcher Lara Mahal announced as Canada Excellence Research Chair in Faculty of Science.

Andrew Lyle - 17 April 2019

The Government of Canada announced today the appointment of glycomics researcher Lara Mahal as a Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) at the University of Alberta, supported by $10 million in federal funding over the next seven years.

The CERC program awards universities funding to support world‑renowned researchers and their teams to establish ambitious research programs at Canadian universities. The federal funding for Mahal's chair will be matched by the Government of Alberta.

Mahal brings her expertise in chemistry and biochemistry in the study of sugars to UAlberta, where she joins fellow leading experts in glycomics at GlycoNet, a pan-Canadian Network of Centres of Excellence of more than 140 researchers, centred at UAlberta.

"Canada, and UAlberta in particular, have a rich history of supporting research into carbohydrates-including federal support for GlycoNet," said Mahal, currently a professor at New York University. "As a result of that investment, Canadian glycosylation research is well-known internationally, making it a welcoming place for my science and for us to continue to advance this field at a world-class stage."

How sugar research helps health

The work at GlycoNet and in Mahal's lab aims to improve our understanding of how sugars interact with human health and disease-looking at small-scale chemistry in the human body to make big impacts.

"Glycans,the sugars on proteins and lipids, are involved in the pathogenesis of every major disease-and yet they are one of the least studied and least understood classes of biomolecules," said Mahal. "The CERC funding will enable us to expand our studies in glycosylation to encompass more clinical collaboration."

Mahal explains that her work at UAlberta will focus on identifying sugars involved in diseases critical to human health, from pancreatic cancer to HIV, and exploring offshoots of her earlier work-which may hold the key to more rapid discovery of druggable targets in disease.

"UAlberta is known for its concentration in glycosylation researchers. There's an exciting group of researchers at this institution in this field, including Matthew Macauley, Lisa Willis, Chris Cairo, Ratmir Derda, John Klassen, Warren Wakarchuk, and Todd Lowary," said Mahal. "I'm looking forward to working with them. I think that this will open up great new opportunities for synergy to help advance this important field."

Mahal follows the university's three previous CERCs, CERC Laureates Graham Pearson (Arctic resources research), Thomas Thundat (oil sands molecular engineering research), and Michael Houghton (virology).