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Sea urchins genetic code could help fight diseases

Sea urchin could help find cures to some diseases
Image caption Sea urchins have a unique genetic sequence which could be utilised

Sea urchins could hold the key to developing cures for major diseases, according to scientists at St Andrews University.

They have found a unique genetic sequence in sea urchins and sponges previously only seen in viruses.

The process allows the introduction of multiple genes into a single gene, but still lets each new part of the gene create its original protein.

The technique could help develop a therapeutic response in human cells.

This latest finding builds on the earlier discovery of a short genetic sequence (2A) caused by viruses which can be used to return cells to a stem cell-like state.

'Step forward'

Martin Ryan, professor of translational virology at the University of St Andrews, was the key researcher in that breakthrough.

He said it was a very exciting discovery: "You could put two - or more - different genes into one cell, but each individual gene would be expressed at very different levels."

Prof Ryan described the new findings as a massive step forward.

The unique sequence was first discovered in the foot-and-mouth disease virus, but has since been seen in other types of virus.

The technique has already been used in human gene therapy clinical trials to treat a number of cancers.

Not a trick

Prof Ryan said: "It is now possible to take cells from a patient and drive them back into a stem cell state.

"These patient-specific stem cells could be used to treat a very wide range of diseases - Parkinson's Disease, Alzheimer's, heart disease among others."

The research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council (MRC).

Originally the research team thought the sequence was a trick played on the host cell by viruses.

Its discovery in creatures such as sea urchins and sponges has indicated that it is in fact used by cells themselves, and in in many different types of animal.

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