Researchers from Edinburgh University said that doctors could place harmless metal implants coated with palladium at the site of the patient’s cancer.
The chemotherapy drugs would then only become active when they come into contact with the metal.
This would make treatment more targeted than existing therapies and help avoiding unwanted side effects, such as hair loss, tiredness and nausea.
These can occur when chemotherapy drugs carried in the blood kill healthy cells as well as cancer cells.
But the scientists said it was possible to alter the chemical composition of commonly-used chemotherapy drugs so that they only become active when they come into contact with palladium, causing minimal damage elsewhere in the body.
The researchers, writing in the journal Nature Communications, said the approach would first need to be tested in animals before it could be studied in patients.
The research was led by scientists from the Edinburgh Cancer Research UK Centre at the MRC Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine.
Dr Asier Unciti-Broceta, who led the study, said: “It will be several years before we’re able to start treating patients but we’re hopeful that this approach will lead to better tolerated cancer therapies in the future.”
James Jopling, director for Scotland at charity Breakthrough Breast Cancer, added: “We know that chemotherapy, whilst effective, can have significant side effects so we are always pleased to see advances which have the potential to improve the quality of breast cancer patients’ lives.
“Targeted treatments, which include the PARP inhibitors developed by Breakthrough scientists which are currently in clinical trials, offer hope for more effective treatments with fewer side effects for breast cancer patients.
“This latest research is a significant step, however it is in a very early stage so much more work is needed before we know whether this technique will work in patients.”