Peter Rahfeld

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This week we profile a recent publication in Nature Microbiology from Dr. Peter Rahfeld
(pictured, left) in the laboratory of Dr. Stephen Withers at UBC.

Can you provide a brief overview of your lab’s current research focus?

My lab focuses on glycobiology, enzymology and carbohydrate chemistry. We are interested in the enzymes that synthesize and degrade glycans ranging from simple polysaccharides, such as starch, through to the complex sugars on the surface of cells (glycoproteins and glycolipids). We have spent a lot of time analyzing the chemical mechanisms of these enzymes, and from the information gained have been able to engineer these enzymes to carry out new reactions. We have also been able to design or discover inhibitors of such enzymes with therapeutic potential, including a potent inhibitor of the influenza neuraminidase that works well at controlling influenza infections as well as a potent inhibitor of human alpha amylase that controls blood sugar levels.  Most recently, we have got interested in using the technique of metagenomics (guided by Steve Hallam) to discover new enzymes for the removal of cell surface sugar antigens such as those that define the A, B and O blood types.

What is the significance of the findings in this publication?

If the procedure proves to be completely safe, it has the potential to broaden the supply of blood, since any A blood (40% of people in North America are A type) can be converted into universal donor O type. This could greatly assist inventory control in blood banks and help avoid the shortages that seem to happen all too often. It could also be useful in emergency situations, especially in more remote locations.

What are the next steps for this research?

Safety, safety safety. We are working with the Canadian Blood Services and with a local hematologist, Dr Andrew Shi, to test the safety of the converted blood. We need to be sure that we have removed ALL of the A-antigen and that we did not inadvertently remove anything else. We would also be interested in other applications for cell surface antigen removal.

This work was funded by:

CIHR (Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

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