Western Mail Profiles: Dr Martina Lahmann, Bangor University

Dr Martina Lahmann‘Researcher inspired by her own life-threatening illness’.
Dr Martina Lahmann is a senior lecturer in organic chemistry at Bangor University.

Twenty five years ago, I’d just started university when I became very seriously ill and my world was never the same again.

I survived, but I had to relearn everything – really everything – I’m still learning even now.

What happened to me all those years ago? At the time, nobody could tell me if it was a nasty bug or an auto-immune disease that almost killed me, so I decided to try to work it out for myself.

I began with learning about the world on a molecular level by studying chemistry; I completed my PhD while still in a wheelchair.

Today, I have my own research group at Bangor University. We’re researching sugars or, as I prefer to call them, carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates are amazing – these molecules are so simply constructed, consisting mainly of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms, but so difficult to understand.

They form the most abundant family of all natural products and their functions are beyond anything I could have imagined when I started working with them.

Sucrose – in everyday language called sugar – makes life not only sweeter but is also an excellent energy store. It consists of two sugar molecules, one of which is called glucose.

Making long chains out of many glucose molecules produces polymers. Depending on how they are joined together, the resulting polymers have very different properties.

One glucose polymer, cellulose, is good for making cotton clothes; another one, starch, feeds us in the form of rice, pasta or potatoes.

The really interesting sugars sit on cell surfaces or inside cells. Their structural variation is vast and they are essential for living systems. They work as communication specialists, monitoring and controlling units.

Our research looks at bacteria such as E.coli and Helicobacter pylori (H.pylori), which use carbohydrates for their own survival. While H.pylori can induce stomach inflammation, E.coli is responsible for many recurrent urinary tract infections.

E coliUnder a microscope, E.coli looks like someone who has forgotten to see the hairdresser for years – it is completely covered with hairy structures, called fimbriae.

A carbohydrate-recognising receptor forms the end of the hairs. After entering the bladder, E.coli attaches itself to the bladder lining to avoid being washed away by urine.

One of our research aims is to trick the bacteria with even stickier sugar molecules, which we produce in the lab.

Bacteria trying to colonise bladders of patients taking such sugar pills would face a hard life.

Instead of sitting snugly in the bladder lining, these bacteria will find their receptors blocked by the synthetic sugar so the end up freely swimming in the bladder until they get excreted and then flushed away.

Did I find an answer for my own disease? Not a direct one but there is a big chance sugars were involved in it.

To contact Martina please email m.lahmann@bangor.ac.uk

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on the 1st August 2011, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.