Glycosylation is the stepwise procedure of covalent attachment of oligosaccharide chains to proteins or lipids, and alterations in this process have been associated with malignant transformation. Simultaneous analysis of the expression of all glycan-related genes clearly gives the advantage of enabling a comprehensive view of the genetic background of the glycobiological changes in cancer cells. Studies focusing on the expression of the whole glycome have now become possible, which prompted us to review the present knowledge on glycosylation in relation to breast cancer diagnosis and progression, in the light of available expression data from tumors and breast tissue of healthy individuals. We used various data resources to select a set of 419 functionally relevant genes involved in synthesis, degradation and binding of N-linked and O-linked glycans, Lewis antigens, glycosaminoglycans (chondroitin, heparin and keratan sulfate in addition to hyaluronan) and glycosphingolipids. Such glycans are involved in a number of processes relevant to carcinogenesis, including regulation of growth factors/growth factor receptors, cell-cell adhesion and motility as well as immune system modulation. Expression analysis of these glycan-related genes revealed that mRNA levels for many of them differ significantly between normal and malignant breast tissue. An associative analysis of these genes in the context of current knowledge of their function in protein glycosylation and connection(s) to cancer indicated that synthesis, degradation and adhesion mediated by glycans may be altered drastically in mammary carcinomas. Although further analysis is needed to assess how changes in mRNA levels of glycan genes influence a cell's glycome and the precise role that such altered glycan structures play in the pathogenesis of the disease, lessons drawn from this study may help in determining directions for future research in the rapidly-developing field of glycobiology.
Copyright 2009 Federation of European Biochemical Societies. Published by Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.