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Researchers: Sea Urchin Could Aid in Cancer Research
Sea urchin tubes contain crystals that make up the skeleton within. The tubes develop and act similarly to human blood vessels. (Courtesy the University of Haifa, Leon H. Charney School of Marine Sciences)

Researchers: Sea Urchin Could Aid in Cancer Research

Scientists believe that mimicking development processes of creature’s skeleton could be a way block tumor growth in humans

Researchers from the University of Haifa believe that the way the sea urchin builds it skeleton might hold the key to discovering a way to prevent tumors from growing in humans.

In their study, recently published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the researchers, led by Dr. Smadar Ben-Tabou de-Leon, found what they believe is a genetic plan for the development of blood vessels that changes into a plan for skeletal growth. They think this finding could have broad ramifications, including in the fight against cancer.

“The basic toolkit to build biological tubes, we think, is the same [in both species],” Ben-Tabou de-Leon told the Media Line. “The more we studied, the more we saw similarities.”

The way a sea urchin builds its skeleton is quite similar to the way mammals develop their blood vessels, she said.

Around 550 million years ago, the ability to transform minerals from the environment into a skeleton began to emerge simultaneously among various groups of animals, Ben-Tabou de-Leon explained. The sea urchin began using calcium carbonate to build an internal calcium-based skeleton by using a process called biomineralization.

Each phylum, or group, of animal has developed its own unique method of biomineralization, rather than inheriting it from a single joint ancestor, she noted.

Until now, this theory lacked an exemplifying demonstration. But by studying the process, researchers hope they will be able to mimic it and eventually learn how to potentially block blood and nutrients from flowing through blood vessels into tumors that use those nutrients to grow.

Ben-Tabou de-Leon cautioned, however, that the research was still very much in its preliminary stages.

During the early stages of fetal development, humans and sea urchins are similar in many respects, just as many animals are similar during their early developmental stages, she said, telling The Media Line that even the way sea urchins grow the tubes is similar to the way human blood vessels develop. She added that she had been shocked by the amount of overlap in everything from the proteins to the molecules

Because of this similarity and in order to prove that this system is related to blood vessels, the research team began taking a closer look at sea urchin embryos and conducted an experiment, injecting into them two types of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), proteins that develop blood vessels.

One originated from sea urchins and the other was human. Researchers found that the proteins acted similarly when building the skeleton. Additionally, the experiment showed that some of the gene developments were similar to the way blood vessels are formed in mammals and humans.

“Ben-Tabou de-Leon’s paper shows one possibility of how an existing platform evolved for one function and then made something completely different out of it,” Dr. Yael Politi, of the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces Department of Biomaterials in Germany, told The Media Line.

“For us, vascularization is used for transport,” said Politi, who also does biomineralization research, “but in the sea urchin, it is filled with minerals to make it useless for transport [and instead] functional as a skeleton.”

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