Scientists have discovered a new potential treatment for cancer which kills tumours by starving them and leaves the body’s healthy cells undamaged, unlike traditional therapies such as radiotherapy.

“Cancer cells grow and divide much more rapidly than normal cells, meaning they have a much higher demand for and are often starved of, nutrients and oxygen,” said Chris Proud, Professor of Cellular Regulation in Biological Sciences at the University of Southampton in U.K..

“We have discovered that a cellular component, eEF2K, plays a critical role in allowing cancer cells to survive nutrient starvation, whilst normal, healthy cells do not usually require eEF2K in order to survive.

“Therefore, by blocking the function of eEF2K, we should be able to kill cancer cells, without harming normal, healthy cells in the process,” Mr. Proud said.

Almost all cells in the human body contain the same basic components, meaning that to attack one of them in a cancer cell, that component will also be affected in normal cells.

This study has identified a specific protein that is not necessary in normal cells but seems to be important to the survival of cancerous cells. A treatment that could block this protein could represent a significant breakthrough in the future of cancer treatment.

Traditional chemotherapy and radiotherapy cause damage to healthy cells, and other more targeted treatments are usually only effective for individual types of cancer.

Contrastingly, this new development does not damage healthy cells and could also be used to treat a wide variety of different cancers.

Mr. Proud and the team are now working with other labs, including pharmaceutical companies, to develop and test drugs that block eEF2K, which could potentially be used to treat cancer in the future.

“Protein synthesis — the creation of proteins within cells — is a fundamental process that enables cells to grow, divide and function. If it goes wrong, it can contribute to the development of cancer. We are interested in how defects in this process can cause cancers and other diseases,” Mr. Proud said.

The research in collaboration with BC Cancer Agency Research Centre is published in the journal Cell.

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