Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have uncovered genes in yeast cells that humans may someday use to grow needed blood vessels.  Even though yeasts lack any blood vessels, they use the same genes involved with blood vessels to repair their cell walls in response to stress. These genes could become targets for drugs that block blood vessel growth to tumors and other diseases, including arthritis, diabetic blindness, age-related macular degeneration, psoriasis, and even potentially Alzheimer’s disease.

Edward Marcotte, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and his graduate students developed a computer algorithm that first sifts through vast sets of existing genomic data representing the genes of worms, mice, yeast, plants and humans. The algorithm pairs up sets of genes that overlap between these organisms and humans. In doing so, it identifies and highlights genes that are known to work together for a specific purpose in the non-human organisms, but the functions of which are not yet known in humans. The scientists can then test those new genes in the lab to determine their function.

In the case of new blood vessel formation (angiogenesis), the scientists found 62 genes that yeast use to fix their cell walls that matched with only a few genes known to be responsible for vessel formation in humans. Developmental biologist John Wallingford and his graduate students then tested the human equivalents of these 62 yeast genes in developing frog embryos in the lab. They confirmed that eight of those 62 genes help build blood vessels in animals. Several of these genes were also confirmed in humans.

“Tumors fool your body into feeding them by initiating blood vessel growth, and that’s the reason we’re interested in angiogenesis,” said Dr. Marcotte. “So, genes for angiogenesis are common targets for chemotherapy. Some of the most effective cancer drugs block angiogenesis.”