Boston University researchers have discovered a natural substance that promotes the growth of new blood vessels, opening up prospects for developing new treatments for a variety of medical problems, including heart disease and stroke.

"The possible uses are endless. All it requires is imagination," said Dr. Harry S. Goldsmith, a surgeon who headed the research team. Based on preliminary experiments with animals, he predicted that the substance could prove useful "any place where blood vessels are needed."

Dr. George D. Lundberg, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, which published the new findings, said that although further studies are needed the "possible impact is mind-boggling."

In persons with a history of heart disease and stroke -- in which blood vessels can be blocked and fail to transport needed oxygen-carrying blood to the body's tissues -- the substance could be used to prevent problems or as an aid to recovery, said Lundberg.

Goldsmith said that a blood vessel growth promoter also could help in the treatment of wound healing, burns, fractures and complications of diabetes.

In a novel set of experiments reported today in the medical journal, the Boston scientists said they succeeded in promoting growth of new blood vessels in rabbits' eyes, using a crudely prepared extract from a membrane that covers organs in the abdominal cavity.

In these experiments, the membrane -- technically called the omentum -- was taken from cats. This membrane also is found in other animals, including humans.

The extract was injected into the rabbit corneas because no blood vessels are normally present in that region. In the experiments, new vessels began to form after a single injection. "By seven to 10 days, blood vessels had formed a dense and richly structured network within the cornea," the researchers reported.

Goldsmith said in an interview that his team was "working intensely" to determine just which chemical is responsible for the blood vessel growth activity so it can be administered in a purer form.

"We know it is a fatty substance," Goldsmith said. He is also uncertain about the mechanism by which the new vessels are formed.

In his unusually enthusiastic editorial, Lundberg described the findings as "really new and of tremendous potential value . . . . The findings reported must be verified by these and other workers before they can be called truth, but, if that occurs, the possible impact is mind-boggling.

"Blood is the staff of life of virtually all human and animal tissues. Imagine finding a naturally occurring substance in abundant supply that makes blood vessels grow," Lundberg wrote.

He noted that once the substance is isolated, it might be possible to "develop specific antibodies" against it, thereby cutting off blood supply to cancerous tissue and reducing its growth.

"It is pure speculation that these kinds of events could spring from the Goldsmith factor that is being reported herein today. However, it is possible and it is exciting," he said.