Israeli researchers have discovered how sea urchins build their skeleton, which could lead to new treatment for cancer, the northern University of Haifa (UH) reported on Thursday.
In the UH study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), it was found that the sea urchin builds its skeleton in much the same way as mammals and other vertebrates develop their circulatory system.
This means that about 550 million years ago, the sea urchins, along with other echinoderm phylum animals, made a change in their genetic program of building blood vessels, and turned it into a calcium-based skeleton.
According to the researchers, it is easier to change an existing program than to build a whole new genetic one.
Thus, animal phylums independently developed their way of taking minerals from the environment to build a skeleton, and there is no "ancestor" who developed one way that everyone inherited.
The researchers focused on the process of biomineralization (in the embryonic stage), in which an animal uses the minerals it absorbs from the environment and turns them into skeletons - with in sea urchins the mineral is calcium carbonate.
The researchers found that the skeleton that develops in the sea urchin embryos is tubular, very similar to the structure of a human's blood vessels, except that instead of blood inside the tube there is calcite.
The researchers also showed that the vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) gene, which is responsible for the formation of the vascular system in humans, also plays an active role in the formation of the skeleton of sea urchins.
VEGF is known to play an active role in the formation of cancer metastases, providing them with new blood vessels with oxygen supply.
Therefore, a better understanding of VEGF control mechanisms can help fight cancer and develop new drugs.
In addition, by learning how the sea urchin controls the features of crystals, as it does with calcite crystals, it will be possible to produce strong artificial crystals in any form.