SCIENTISTS have discovered how to reverse cell division, in a breakthrough that could produce a therapy to halt cancer.
The work carried out in the United States could also open the door to new treatments for birth defects.
According to an article in the science journal Nature today, the discovery is based on a new technique that controls a protein that prompts cells to multiply.
Cell division occurs millions of times each day in the human body. It is essential to life but is also the driving force behind cancer, which occurs when the process runs out of control.
A team led by Dr Gary Gorbsky at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation were able to interrupt and reverse cell division by manipulating a key protein. They were even able to send duplicate chromosomes, the packages of DNA containing genes, back to the centre of the original cell that gave rise to them - an achievement previously thought to be impossible.
Dr Gorbsky said: "No-one has got the cell cycle to go backwards before now. This shows certain events in the cell cycle that have long been assumed irreversible may, in fact, be reversible.
"Our studies indicate that the factors pointing cells towards division can be turned and even reversed. If we wait too long, however, it doesn't work, so we know that there are multiple regulators in the cell division cycle. Now, we will begin to study the triggers that set these events in motion."
The findings may prove important in controlling the development and spread of certain cancers. They also hold out the promise of prevention and treatment of birth defects and a wide range of other conditions.
A spokeswoman for Cancer Research UK said the work was still at the earliest stage and had yet to be developed into a therapy that could be used for live tests. "To put this in context, this discovery is many years away from producing anything of use to cancer patients," she said.
However, the advance in halting cell division gives more credence to experts' claims last year that a treatment which could overcome the disease is only a decade away. Scientists believe research will lead to drugs that will turn cancer from a fatal condition into one that people can live with for most of their lives.