Page last updated at 01:03 GMT, Tuesday, 21 July 2009 02:03 UK

Potent cancer drug hopes raised

Lysosomes (green) bursting
Antibodies trigger the release of toxic chemicals in cancer cells

A new way of making cancer cells die has been discovered by UK scientists, raising hopes of potent new treatments.

The use of antibodies to target cancer has already had great success, and the latest discovery promises to make the approach even more effective.

Antibodies were known to mobilise the immune system to attack cancer cells and destroy them.

But the Journal of Clinical Investigation study found they can also kill cancer cells directly themselves.

The discovery of the unique pathway used by antibody therapies to kill cancer cells has for the first time revealed why they are more effective than chemotherapy
Dr David Grant
Leukaemia Research

It is hoped that the work, by the universities of Southampton and Manchester, will lead to new treatments, increasing doctors' options for treating a range of cancers.

This could prove invaluable in combating resistance to current treatments.

It has been known for sometime that antibodies can bind to cancer cells, and flag them up as a target for destruction by the disease-fighting cells of the immune system.

Doctors have harnessed this ability to develop a number of antibody-based treatments for cancer over the last decade, which have produced very impressive results.

But the latest study, based on an analysis of leukaemia and lymphoma cells, showed that antibodies can also kill off cancer cells in a much more direct way.

It showed that when an antibody binds to a cancer cell it can trigger small enzyme-containing sacs called lysosomes inside the cell to swell and burst, releasing their contents, which are highly toxic to the cell.

Significant findings

Researcher Dr Mark Cragg said: "Our findings are significant and open up the possibility of applying the knowledge of how antibodies can be developed to trigger cell death and may enable us to design treatments for other cancers."

Dr Mark Matfield, of the Association for International Cancer Research, said: "The discovery of a new mechanism by which cancer cells kill themselves is an important step forward in cancer research.

"Killing the cancer cells is the basis of all successful cancer treatments."

Dr David Grant, of Leukaemia Research, said: "The discovery of the unique pathway used by antibody therapies to kill cancer cells has for the first time revealed why they are more effective than chemotherapy.

"This may lead to new treatments for patients with blood cancers who cannot be cured using conventional chemotherapy."

Dr Lesley Walker, of the charity Cancer Research UK, said: "Although it's at an early stage, this research provides valuable clues as to how monoclonal antibodies kill cancer cells, and could lead to more effective treatments for cancer in the future."

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