A carbohydrate ‘Velcro’ to snare agents of disease

Research Lives: Prof Lokesh Joshi, Stokes professor of glycoscience and research VP at NUI Galway

Lokesh, your research looks at the science of sugars in nature, can you explain?

I’m interested in carbohydrates. By that I don’t mean the sugars we eat, but rather the carbohydrates that help cells to sense and interact with their surroundings. For example, plant and animal cells, bacteria, fungi and virus particles all have protein and carbohydrate structures called glycoproteins on their outer surfaces. These glycoproteins have specific shapes that can lock together in a handshake between the surfaces. If they fit together, this is a form of recognition or sensing.

Does this happen in Covid-19?

Yes, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 has spike-glycoproteins (S-glycoprotein) on its surface, and these can lock onto specific receptors on human cells. This means the virus can get inside our cells. Recent reports suggest that mutations in S-glycoprotein has helped the virus “jump” from animal to human host.


What have you been working on during the pandemic?

One of the technologies I am involved in is a carbohydrate-based molecular "Velcro" to capture pathogens or other agents that could be harmful. I'm the founder of a start-up called Aquila Bioscience, and we have developed a wipe that is coated with carbohydrates that grab hold of bacteria and viruses and potentially dangerous substances.

You can wipe your face and eyes and hands with this wipe, as well as surfaces. It not only removes the agent, but also captures it so it can be tested. We have been working with Defence Forces Ireland and the European Defence Agency on it, and during the pandemic we have shown that the "Velcro" captures all pathogens tested so far. Testing of Covid-19 virus is ongoing in a defence lab in the US. We are now piloting the wipes with frontline agencies.

What else do you look at?

I see living organisms, including our bodies, as incredible sensor systems. We don’t have a dashboard in front of us like in a car to tell us how various parts are performing, but we can look at a molecular level and figure out what is going on in health and disease.

So my lab is looking at the carbohydrates in mucus, a protective barrier that lines surfaces in our bodies. We are also working on a large European project to find carbohydrate signatures in urine that can tell us about a person’s nutrition, and we have been exploring how chronic stress alters carbohydrates in the body.

You are vice-president for research at NUI Galway – what are your thoughts on research in the pandemic?

I think the pandemic has shown the world that we are all deeply connected, and that research is a way out of Covid-19, it is part of the recovery. The pandemic has fostered a wonderful culture of collaboration and I am excited to see, for example, biologists working with data scientists and looking for that deeper understanding of viral infection and our response to it.

But for researchers it is also a time of great uncertainty and stress, and we need to support them and help them face this with resilience as we learn to do our research in new ways.

And finally, what has been keeping you on an even keel during the Covid-19 restrictions?

I am connecting with my family and getting out in the garden and going for walks when possible. I also try to start each day by meditating, to bring a sense of stillness and clarity to myself, and recognising the anxiety around not having as much certainty or control in our lives as we may have thought we did.

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation