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Wednesday, 24 January, 2001, 01:41 GMT
Breakthrough brings cures closer
Electron microscope
Scientists have made an important discovery about cells
Scientists have invented a technique that will help researchers explore the last uncharted territory in the cells of the human body.

The technique, developed by a team from the Cancer Research Campaign Research Centre at Manchester's Christie Hospital, will allow scientists to investigate the role of large sugar molecules, which are found in every single human cell.

The technique has implications not only for cancer research but for the whole of biology

Professor John Gallagher, CRC Research Centre
The Christie team believes that understanding the exact function of these sugar chains could lead to new ways of treating and curing disease - including the development of new anti-cancer drugs.

Lead researcher Professor John Gallagher said: "Our findings represent real progress in this field of work and we believe that our methods will be used by scientists across the globe to push back the boundaries of international research.

"The technique has implications not only for cancer research but for the whole of biology."

The sugar chains, called heparan sulphates, are vital for cells to function properly.

However, scientists have never fully understood how they worked.

In the past similar techniques for investigating DNA have helped scientists to sequence the human genome and find genes that are responsible for diseases such as cancer.

But until now there was no equivalent method for examining these sugar molecules.

Embryo instructions

Scientists know that these molecules come in a variety of shapes and sizes and that they contain instructions for a growing embryo and for day-to-day functioning in adult cells.

But they are only beginning to understand how they work to control the behaviour of cells.

The new technique will be central to advances in this field of research.

These complex sugar molecules really are the final frontier of biology

Professor Gordon McVie, Cancer Research Campaign
Crucially, heparan sulphates are involved in how cells move and multiply and, since cancer occurs when these processes go out of control, the new sequencing technique may extend understanding of the disease.

The research is part of an international effort, combining work done in Manchester, at the University of Birmingham, Uppsala University in Sweden and in The Adelaide Children's Hospital, Australia.

Professor Gordon McVie, Director General of The Cancer Research Campaign said: "This is a very important piece of research because these complex sugar molecules really are the final frontier of biology.

"Professor Gallagher and his colleagues have created a vital tool for scientists around the world and developments like these are often followed by great scientific discoveries.

"We look forwards to the impact of this innovation on cancer research."

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