Scientists now understand the secrets of cancer enzyme telomerase
major breakthrough in cancer research could lead to the creation of
'one-size-fits-all' drugs capable of tackling almost all forms of the
Scientists have unravelled the secrets of an enzyme called telomerase that makes cancer cells immortal.
This allows them to multiply uncontrollably and cause disease.
The landmark discovery paves the way for the creation of drugs that block the enzyme, stopping tumour growth.
telomerase at work in almost all human cancers, such a drug or family
of drugs could have a major impact in the treatment of the disease
which affects almost 300,000 Britons a year and kills someone every
Liz Baker, of charity Cancer Research UK, said: 'This is a crucial part of the puzzle in understanding how telomerase works.
research like this may help scientists to design drugs that block
telomerase and could potentially be used to treat a wide range of
The implications of the US research do not end there,
with new anti-ageing treatments or better drugs for age-related
diseases also possibly on the cards, the journal Nature reports.
The researchers from the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, have deciphered the structure of a key part of telomerase.
healthy cells, the enzyme is all but switched off, and the cells
multiply a set number of times before dying - a key part of the ageing
But in up to 90 per cent of cancers, the enzyme is activated, allowing runaway cell division and tumour growth.
the compound's structure will allow scientists to design drugs that
deactivate the enzyme and so halt the disease in its tracks.
targeting of cancerous cells should mean such medicines would be free
of the side-effects such as the pain, nausea and hair loss associated
with conventional treatments.
Previous attempts to make telomerase-blocking drugs have been thwarted by lack of knowledge about the enzyme.
Study leader Dr Emmanuel Skordalakes described the breakthrough as 'extremely exciting'.
is an ideal target for chemotherapy because it is active in almost all
human tumours, but inactive in most normal cells,' he said.
'That means a drug that deactivates telomerase would likely work against all cancers, with few side effects.'
Unravelling the mysteries of telomerase could also pave the way for therapies that combat ageing and age-related diseases.
Switching on telomerase in a controlled, safe way, could theoretically produce younger, healthier and longer living tissue.
researchers concluded: 'Because telomerase has a critical role in both
cancer and ageing, these findings could potentially assist our efforts
to identify and develop inhibitors and/or activators of this enzyme for
the treatment of cancer and ageing, respectively.'
enzyme's structure is complex and any drugs that are designed will have
to go through many years of laboratory, animal and human testing before
they reach the pharmacy shelves.