Although estimation of serum alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) is widely used in the diagnosis of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) and non-seminomatous germ cell tumours (NSGCT), the clinical usefulness of this test is limited by a low specificity. However, there exist glycoforms of AFP which may be more specific for particular tumours. Previously detailed analysis has been prevented by the low levels of AFP in human serum. We report here the application of fluorescence labelling, sequential exoglycosidase digestion, high-performance liquid chromatography and matrix-assisted laser desorption ionization in time-of-flight mass spectrometry, to determine the glycan structures of purified serum AFP from patients with HCC and NSGCT. Eleven major glycans were found, of which seven were N-linked, and four were O-linked, to the protein backbone. The structure of the N-linked glycans (all of bi-antennary complex-type with varying degrees of sialylation, fucosylation and galactosylation) were consistent with those previously reported. The O-linked glycans (three mucin O-GalNAc type glycans with variable degrees of sialylation, one O-HexNAc monosaccharide glycan) have not previously been reported. The finding of mucin O-GalNAc type glycans was supported by the prediction of potential O-GalNAc glycosylation sites on the protein backbone by analysis of the AFP structure by molecular modelling. With knowledge of these structures it may be possible to develop more specific assays for the detection of HCC and NSGCT.
- Hepatocellular carcinoma
- Non-seminomatous germ cell tumour
- Protein structure