1. Oligosaccharides linked to protein (glycoprotein) or lipid (glycolipid) are the major components at the outer surface of mammalian cells. Studies using antibodies and lectins have shown in the past that the oligosaccharides they recognize exhibit tumour-associated changes, i.e. they are carbohydrate tumour-associated antigens.

2. The oligosaccharides have been further characterized in recent years by structural analysis using high-resolution chromatographic techniques, MS and NMR. NMR gives an oligosaccharide fingerprint that is characteristic of monosaccharide type and linkage and which can be correlated with magnetic resonance spectroscopic data on fine-needle tissue aspirates.

3. Also of relevance is the new understanding of the molecular biology of MUC genes, which code for mucin protein backbones, and of the glycosyltransferase genes, which determine oligosaccharide structure and immunological recognition.

4. For these reasons, we believe that tumour-associated oligosaccharide changes should be revisited in the context of what we now know about structure and expression. This review synopsizes the past data using the detection of carbohydrate tumour-associated antigens by binding of lectins and antibodies, and puts it into the context of NMR fingerprints or signatures.

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