British scientists claim they are just TEN years away from developing the world’s first cancer killing pill – after discovering a genetic flaw in the disease’s DNA.
Experts have found a mutation in some cancer cells which means the disease cannot repair its own damaged genetic structure.
Scientists believe this so-called ‘Achilles heel’ can be exploited using gene therapy drugs in the form of pills or injections to attack the cancer’s DNA.
The discovery of certain cancer’s inability to repair its own cells is being hailed as a breakthrough which could mean the end of painful chemotherapy treatments.
The findings, led by Professor Ghulam Mufti, a leukaemia specialist at Kings College London, will be aired on BBC2’s Horizon programme tonight.
Prof Mufti said effective drugs were being developed by grouping cancers by the pattern of their genetic activity, rather than where they occurred in the body.
He said researchers were edging closer to finding a cure for cancer by studying the DNA of tumours.
The technique was made possible 10 years ago when scientists first mapped all three-billion ”letters” that comprise the complete human genetic sequence.
He said: ”One thing is for sure. Since the completion of the Human Genome Project, the advances have been absolutely phenomenal.
”Therefore, I’m pretty sure that over a period of time, say over the next decade, we will be able to identify the right treatment regime for a particular patient.
”As time goes on, it’s probably going to be the case that the majority of cancers will have some kind of targeted therapy.”
A drug undergoing medical trials at the Breakthrough Breast Cancer Research Centre in London works by attacking the cancer cells’ inability to repair their own damaged genetic structure.
Project leader Professor Alan Ashworth said: ”Some tumour cells can’t repair their DNA properly.
”They actually don’t care about repairing it. They just carry on growing fast.
”So, we’ve worked out a way of trying to exploit that to treat cancer.”
The drug, which has no side effects, inhibits the ability of cells to repair naturally occurring defects in their DNA.
At a low concentration, healthy cells are strong enough to survive the treatment while at the same time the cancer cells that are bad at repairing their genetic make-up are destroyed.
Prof Ashworth added: ”At this concentration, all the mutant cells are killed but the normal cells are not really touched.
”So, potentially that translates into much more powerful treatments but much fewer side-effects as well because we’re not killing normal cells.”
The breakthrough could mean the difference between life and death for thousands of cancer patients.
Prof Ashworth said: ”We are in the 21st century, we’ve got the human genome sequence, and we’re still treating cancer with medieval treatments.
”We cut it out with a big knife or we burn it with radiation or we poison it with chemotherapy.
”Chemotherapy really just works by killing cells that are growing fast. There is nothing clever about it at all.
”What we’re trying to do is use the genome information to develop new ways of treating the cancer itself, the genetic defects of the cancer, not the normal cells.”
Scientists at the Sanger Institute in Cambridgeshire, which was at the forefront of the Human Genome Project, is also using super-computers to identify the differences in the DNA of cancerous and healthy cells from the same patient.
Institute director Professor Mike Stratton said the research meant it might soon be possible to treat and even create drugs which can prevent cancer completely.
Tonight’s programme also features a medical trial of a drug to cure cystic fibrosis using a similar method of gene therapy, which could be available on the NHS in just five years.
It works by replacing the faulty gene that causes cystic fibrosis with a healthy manmade version, which is suspended in a fatty liquid and inhaled via a nebuliser.
Professor Eric Alton, of the Cystic Fibrosis Gene Therapy Consortium and Imperial College London, said the research would be completed by the end of 2012.
He said: ”Around that time we should get a feeling of whether that trial, for the first time in the world, has shown if patients can actually get better clinically.
“If this first trial looks good then I think we can move it quite rapidly into the NHS.
“If everything goes fantastically by the end of 2012, I think within two or three years we might be able to put it into regular treatment.”
* Horizon: Miracle Cure? A Decade of the Human Genome is on BBC2 at 9pm tonight (MON, OCT 25).