SYDNEY, Australia - Researchers at the University of Queensland in Brisbane have patented a gene, Sox 18, which they say plays a key role in the formation of blood vessels.

Peter Koopman and George Muscat published their discovery in last week's issue of Nature Genetics. Koopman said he and Muscat identified Sox 18 while looking at the genes involved in the development of embryos. They identified genes that played major roles in the development of the skeleton and in determining the sex of the embryo.

After identifying Sox 18 they realized it was active in blood vessels throughout the body, so it played a major role in their development.

"Its definitely a key gene," Koopman said.

The next step will be to work out which genes interact with Sox 18 to control blood vessel development and also what processes are required within cells to produce the final effects.

The initial media coverage of the identification of Sox 18 has concentrated on its potential for treating tumors by affecting the blood supply to tumors, but Koopman said the discovery has a wide range of clinical possibilities.

Koopman also said he expects substantial commercial interest in the patent for the gene. - Mark Lawson