p53 plays a key role in combating cancer
Scientists have discovered a group of chemicals which protect one of the body's most important anti-cancer genes from destruction.
They hope the chemicals - dubbed tenovins - could be used to develop effective new cancer treatments.
The researchers showed tenovins form a protective shield around the p53 gene, which is either switched off or impaired in many cancers.
The Scottish study appears in the journal Cancer Cell.
The p53 gene halts the growth of damaged cells, either by triggering their death, or prompting DNA repair. It is activated by DNA damage.
Some existing drugs trigger p53's anti-cancer activity by damaging DNA. However, inflicting this damage carries a risk of its own.
The researchers, from the Universities of St Andrews and Dundee, showed that tenovins play key role in preventing the body from breaking down p53 as part of its natural recycling process.
They do this by blocking enzymes which target the gene for destruction.
In theory, this ability could be harnessed by new anti-cancer drugs to boost levels of p53 - and hence its cancer fighting potency - in the body.
The drugs potentially would be more effective and safer than current alternatives.
The researchers discovered tenovins by investigating the properties of a library of 30,000 drug-like compounds.
Lead researcher Dr Sonia Lain said: "Our findings indicate that tenovins have the potential to stop tumours.
"We found that tenovins work by inhibiting enzymes called sirtuins which clip off a crucial chemical group from p53, leading to its destruction.
"We hope that targeting sirtuins with drugs could treat many different cancers in the future."
The study was jointly funded by Tenovus Scotland, Cancer Research UK, and the University of Dundee.
Dr Lesley Walker, of Cancer Research UK, said: "Translating the processes underlying cancer into effective treatments for patients is a major part of Cancer Research UK's strategy for beating cancer, and one which we believe will deliver many more crucial weapons in the fight against the disease."