SOUTHAMPTON scientists have taken a major step closer to developing groundbreaking new treatments for fighting cancer.

Cancer Research UK scientists at the University of Southampton have discovered a new molecule that prevents cancer cells from surviving when they are starved of oxygen.

They believe that the discovery of this molecule which targets the “master switch” that cancer cells use to adapt to low oxygen levels can pave the way for new treatments.

The next step will be to find a way to utilise this molecule in a treatment which will kill the cancer cells by starving them of oxygen.

The researchers in the city uncovered a way to stop cancer cells using this switch through an approach called “synthetic biology”.

By testing 3.2m potential compounds, made by specially engineered bacteria, they were able to find a molecule that stopped HIF-1 from working.

All cells need a blood supply to provide them with the oxygen and nutrients they require to survive.

Cancer tumours grow rapidly and as the tumour gets bigger it outstrips the supply of oxygen and nutrients that the surrounding blood vessels can deliver. But, to cope with this low-oxygen environment, HIF-1 acts as a master switch that turns on hundreds of genes, allowing cancer cells to survive.

HIF-1 triggers the formation of new blood vessels around tumours, causing more oxygen and nutrients to be delivered to the starving tumour, which in turn allows it to keep growing.

Dr Ali Tavassoli, a Cancer Research UK scientist whose team discovered and developed the compound at the University of Southampton, said: “We've found a way to target the steps that cancer cells take to survive and we hope that our research will one day lead to effective drugs that can stop cancers adapting to a low oxygen environment, stopping their growth.

“The next step is to further develop this molecule to create an effective treatment.”

Dr Julie Sharp, senior science information manager at Cancer Research UK, added: “Finding ways to disrupt the tools that cancer cells use to adapt and grow when starved of oxygen has been a hot topic in cancer research, but finding drugs that do this effectively has proved elusive.

“For the first time our scientists have found a way to block a master switch controlling cells response to low levels of oxygen - an important step towards creating drugs that could halt cancer in its tracks.”