BBC World News – Scientists have found a way to block the development of cancer by putting tumour cells into a permanent coma.
The Marie Curie Research Institute believes the breakthrough holds the promise of a completely new way to treat the disease.
Current treatments are based on cutting out or killing cancer cells.
The new method works by reactivating a natural self-defence mechanism which blocks cells carrying potentially dangerous mutations from dividing.
In normal circumstances, this mechanism prevents damaged cells from reproducing themselves by putting them into a state known as senescence.
But in cancer it is somehow switched off, allowing cell division to run riot, and leading to the formation of tumours.
Scientists previously thought that in cancers the mechanism was damaged beyond repair.
The latest study – focused on a deadly form of skin cancer called malignant melanoma – proves this is not the case.
The researchers discovered a gene called Tbx2 which appears to play a key role in sabotaging the brake on cell division.
When they disabled the gene, the melanoma cells lost the ability to divide.
What is not clear is whether this gene plays a role in the development of all cancers, or just melanoma.
Researcher Dr Colin Goding said: “Being able to design drugs that reactivate senescence would be a great boon.
“The beauty of it is that this natural mechanism would automatically target cells which have the accelerator jammed on – it would hit the cancer cells, but not normal cells.”
However, the researchers stress it will be at least ten years before drugs can be developed.
Dr Tim Eisen, a skin cancer specialist at the Royal Marsden Hospital, London, said: “Understanding how melanomas develop and survive will be crucial to developing effective treatment for this dangerous condition.
“At present, we do not have very effective treatment for melanoma once it has spread to other parts of the body.”
Dr Mark Matfield, of the Association for International Cancer Research which part funded the research, said cases of malignant melanoma were rising quickly.
“This work will excite the scientific community because of the possibility that this protective self-defence mechanism could form the basis of a potential treatment, not only for melanomas but also for other fast-growing cancers like breast, prostate and pancreatic cancer, which between them kill almost 30,000 people in the UK every year.”
Dr Gordon Peters, Cancer Research UK’s Head of Molecular Oncology said much work was being done to try to isolate genes involved in suppressing cancer growth.
He said the latest study was a valuable addition.
“As well as revealing previously unrecognised angles to the underlying mechanisms, the findings underscore the belief that it may be possible to put cancer cells to sleep.”