Page last updated at 23:01 GMT, Friday, 17 April 2009 00:01 UK

Hope for child cancer treatment

Neuroblastoma cell
Neuroblastoma is caused by a build up of a protein

Scientists believe they may have found a way to treat a type of childhood cancer of the nervous system.

Neuroblastoma accounts for around 7% of all childhood cancers, and around one in six cancer deaths in children.

Research by a German team suggests blocking the activity of a protein called Aurora may turn cancerous cells back into a non-malignant state.

The study, published in the journal Cancer Cell, raises hopes of new drugs to treat the condition.

There is a desperate need for new therapies for neuroblastoma
Mark Matfield
Association for International Cancer Research

Neuroblastoma, found most commonly in children under the age of five, is a cancer of specialised nerve cells, called neural crest cells. These cells are involved in the development of the nervous system and other tissues.

Tumours often develop in one of the adrenal glands, but may also form in nerve tissues in the neck, chest, abdomen, or pelvis.

The most aggressive forms are fuelled by the build up of a protein called Myc in the cells.

Reversing build up

A team at the University of Marburg in Germany found that Aurora stops cells from destroying the Myc protein, causing a build-up which makes the cells cancerous.

They believe that inhibiting Aurora's activity would allow Myc to break down normally.

In theory this would mean that cancerous cells would revert to a healthy state.

Lead researcher Professor Martin Eilers said: "We are very excited by our findings which may pave the way for the development of drugs to fight this rare but deadly cancer."

Mark Matfield, of the Association for International Cancer Research, which funded the study, stressed the research was at an early stage.

But he said: "This is an important development - there is a desperate need for new therapies for neuroblastoma.

"It is one of the most difficult childhood cancers to treat successfully."

Dr Penelope Brook, a child cancer specialist at London's Great Ormond Street Hospital, said the research was a "potentially very exciting" development in the treatment of what could be a "very worrying" disease.

However, she said: "There are a number of new potential treatments coming through for neuroblastoma, but it will not be until clinical trials have been carried out that we will know which one will be of most use.

"Sometimes treatments appear very active in cell cultures, or even animal models, but sadly they do not translate into improvements in clinical outcomes."

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