By blocking certain proteins, scientists found they could stop breast cancer cells, which appear to be undettered by chemotherapy, using sugar to fuel their growth.
Active tumours are most targeted and healthy cells left alone, thereby reducing the chances of unwanted side effects.
Lead scientist Dr Jeremy Blaydes, from the University of Southampton, whose research is published in this month’s edition of the journal Chemical Science, said: “Because this is an entirely new approach to treatment, the drugs we are developing could be effective against breast cancers that have become resistant to current chemotherapies.
“Unfortunately, despite great improvements in breast cancer treatment in recent years, chemotherapy-resistance eventually happens in around one in five cases, and every year in the UK around 12,000 women still die from the disease. To overcome this resistance, innovative treatments that use new approaches to stop cancer from growing are desperately needed.”
Around 50,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the UK, including 4,500 in Scotland. Latest figures, released in May this year from the Information Services Division (ISD) Scotland, showed that in women, breast cancer remained the most common form of cancer with figures up 13.7 per cent in a decade.
Researchers were aware that all cancer cells are attracted to sugar, grabbing it from the blood before using it to fuel their growth.
In breast cancer the process involves binding proteins called CtBPs together to form pairs known as dimers. These in turn help the cells to multiply and proliferate.
Dr Blaydes’ team, funded by the charity Breast Cancer Campaign, found that chemicals called cyclic peptide inhibitors can block CtBPs and prevent the dimers forming.
The most successful of CtBP blocker, known as CP61, is now being developed as a potential new breast cancer drug.
Dr Blaydes added: “What makes this discovery even more exciting as a potential treatment is that CtBPs are mostly only active in the cancer cells, so blocking this ‘sweet tooth’ should cause less damage to normal cells and fewer side effects than existing treatments.
“This work is at an early stage in the laboratory but it is really exciting as it has the potential to deliver a completely new kind of cancer drug, which could be available within 10 years.”
Dr Stuart Griffiths, research director at Breast Cancer Campaign, said: “For women whose breast cancer has become resistant to chemotherapy, this potential new treatment could offer a much needed lifeline.
“Every year, thousands of women still die and millions are affected by breast cancer so we will continue to seek out world-class research, bringing the brightest minds together to share knowledge and produce better, quicker results.”
The research was partly funded through Breast Cancer Campaign’s partnership with supermarket chain Asda and its Tickled Pink campaign, Debenhams’ Think Pink campaign and The Generations Walk.
James Jopling, director for Scotland at charity Breakthrough Breast Cancer, gave the research a cautious welcome and said he would be interested in its long-term findings.
“This is interesting, but early, research that could potentially lead to a new approach to breast cancer treatment. However, it has only been tested on cells which have been cultivated in labs, so more work is needed before a drug is ready for clinical trials, and this could take several years.
“Breakthrough Breast Cancer is dedicated to developing new targeted treatments, so we welcome developments like this and look forward to seeing where this research leads.”
Dr Jean Turner, executive director of Scotland Patients’ Association, said while breast cancer rates for Scotland had increased this could be due to increased awareness of the disease.
“Breast cancer is the one cancer which gets a lot of publicity and public involvement. Angelina Jolie, the actress, who had a particular gene putting her at risk from the disease and went public about it is a case in point.
“But no matter what type of cancer, any quality research into this is to be welcomed and if they have the money to pay for it then that’s all to the good.”