Public engagement events are essential for inspiring the next generation of young scientists to ask questions, think critically and experiment with the world around them, whilst also showcasing the wealth of cutting-edge science that goes on in and around Norwich.

Last week’s Norwich Science Festival 2021 provided a great opportunity to interact with the general public once again, and share the glycoscience work we are doing here at Iceni Diagnostics.

Our ‘Build-a-carbohydrate’ stand allowed children (and the occasional adult) to assemble a carbohydrate themselves and learn about how these can specifically interact with the many things that bind to them.

Carbohydrates or sugars aren’t just structural or food-related, they are responsible for many of the interactions between the cells in our body as well as the interactions between cells and foreign organisms such as bacteria and viruses.

Many pathogens (which include viruses and bacteria) recognize and bind different sugars. Human influenza virus, for example, recognizes a specific type of sugar while avian influenza virus recognises another. Cholera is another example of a disease caused by a bacterial sugar-binding toxin that can enter cells after binding to specific carbohydrates on the cell surface. These sugar binding sites are therefore the obvious targets for diagnostics and drugs to combat pathogen infection.

In our work, we rely on such details to find chemicals that can therefore block binding and prevent disease. We build carbohydrates in a specific way to prevent pathogens from binding and being able to cause disease. Our Host-Pathogen Glycan Recognition (HPGR)TM technology additionally uses the specific interaction between carbohydrates and pathogens to detect the presence of a pathogen in a test sample. And the big advantage of using carbohydrates in a diagnostic test is that no prior knowledge of an organism’s genetic code is needed, which inevitably makes the test more mutation-proof.

Combining this advantage with a simple and inexpensive dipstick (a small strip containing chemicals active towards a specific target), we can produce an effective diagnostic device based on detecting sugars in a sample.

At our stand, we invited budding young scientists to test different solutions of sugar with dipstick test strips to see the colour change based on the amount of sugar in the sample. This technique can be applied to the testing of many different sugars involved in many diseases and infections, and is already commonly used in the monitoring of glucose in diabetes patients.

With the mass testing that has arisen out of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have all become familiar with lateral flow devices. However, our giant lateral flow demonstration at the science festival allowed us to show how they actually work in close-up detail.

Lateral flow tests are paper-based biosensors that work using an interaction between chemicals which, once mixed, develop a signal which is often visible by eye. These tests work on the principle of diffusion, allowing a sample to run through the device to reach a line where a sugar-binding chemical has been deposited or printed. The sample will interact with a coloured agent, for example gold nanoparticles, if the pathogen we are testing for is present. When the pathogen-nanoparticle conjugate reaches the test line, the sugar binding chemical captures it, and develops a red line.

It was a privilege to be part of Norwich Science Festival 2021, to share the exciting sugar-based science we do with the public and, indeed, to be able to continue working to produce ground-breaking diagnostics and therapeutics for the benefit of all.

Contributions by: Gaia Fancellu, Pedro Hernando, Iakovia Ttoffi and Mike Rugen