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Tuesday, 20 February, 2001, 01:07 GMT
Putting cancer to sleep
Scientists are searching for a key chemical
Scientists believe it could be possible to lull cancer cells into a state of everlasting sleep.

Normal cells eventually fall into this state of senescence, but cancer cells are able to buck the ageing process and to continue to grow and spread.

A team of scientists at the Paterson Institute in Manchester are now investigating whether it is possible to use a chemical "lullaby" to check this uncontrolled growth in cancer cells.

Lead researcher Dr Naoko Ohtani, whose work is financed by the Cancer Research Campaign, said: "Cancer cells are a bit like rowdy party goers who stay up all night long while healthy cells know when it's time to go home.

We may be able to find the chemical equivalent of a lullaby that will send these rowdy cells to sleep for good

Dr Naoko Ohtini, Paterson Institute
"We are trying to find out what makes healthy cells senesce.

"If we can find out how the process goes wrong in cancer cells, we may be able to find the chemical equivalent of a lullaby that will send these rowdy cells to sleep for good."

Cell division

Normal cells can only divide a certain number of times before they fall asleep, or senesce.

They then remain alive but can no longer divide. Dr Ohtani and her team are looking at how this process is controlled.

She said: "We know there is a group of molecules that induce senescence and we believe that in the future we may be able to mimic this to produce a completely new cancer treatment."

One of the molecules involved is called p16INK4a and is known to be a "tumour suppressor" that helps to safeguard the cell from cancer.

It appears that p16INK4a is controlled by a number of other molecules.

Dr Ohtani and her colleague Dr Eiji Hara are investigating how these molecules work together to make cells senesce.

Professor Gordon McVie, director general of the Cancer Research Campaign, said: "Cancer cells' continual activity - or refusal to go to sleep - is one of the key problems facing cancer doctors today.

"If Dr Ohtani's team can discover how cells fall asleep permanently, it could lead to a brand new way of treating cancer."

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