CANCER patients may one day be spared the ravages associated with chemotherapy following a breakthrough by Scottish scientists developing new treatments for the disease.
A team of researchers at Edinburgh University have opened the door to new treatments for cancer through a technique that targets individual areas rather then the body as a whole.
Using metal implants which go directly into tumours, the team was able to create a way to activate drugs only in the areas where they are needed, potentially avoiding unwanted side effects.
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Patients undergoing chemotherapy can expect side-effects such as hair loss, tiredness and nausea, all of which occur when the chemotherapy drugs carried in the blood kill healthy cells as well as cancer cells.
Instead, the university team devised a way that means only the area where cancer is present is affected.
Dr Asier Unciti-Broceta, who led the study, said: "It will be several years before we're able to start treating patients.
"However, we're hopeful that this approach will lead to better tolerated cancer therapies in the future."
The scientists found that they could alter the chemical composition of commonly used chemotherapy drugs so that they only become active when they come into contact with a metal called palladium.
Researchers hope that by implanting small devices coated with palladium into patients' tumours, the drugs would become activated only where they are needed, causing minimal damage to the rest of the body.
The technique is similar to drugs known as Parp inhibitors, which have recently entered clinical trials and work by targeting a specific weakness in genetic forms of cancer to kill the cancerous cells while leaving healthy cells unscathed.
However, despite the scientists' success in experiments with the technique, it could be years before it is ready to be used in human patients.
The scientists reported their discovery yesterday in the journal Nature Communications.
However, the approach will first need to be tested in animals before it can then be studied in patients.
Cancer charities have welcomed the research and said that it could potentially make a huge difference in the lives of those people who suffer from the disease.
Dr Sarah Hazell, senior science information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: "This is an interesting approach to potentially making drug treatments for cancer patients much kinder.
"However, these are early experiments in cells grown in the lab, so there is still some way to go before that becomes a reality."
James Jopling, Director for Scotland at Breakthrough Breast Cancer, added: "We know that chemotherapy, while 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 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."