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Cancer breakthrough as scientists uncover cells' secret weapon

A secret weapon used by cancers to survive chemotherapy has been uncovered by scientists.

Their findings could help make cancer treatments much more effective, experts believe.

A team from the Cancer Research Institute unravelled the structure of a protein that lies at the heart of the tumour defence system.

Known as FANCL, it helps cancer cells repair the DNA damage inflicted by many chemotherapy drugs.

Study leader Dr Helen Walden said: "Our team has determined the structure of the engine in the cell's maintenance pack that, if switched off, would make cells much more responsive to chemotherapy.

"We have taken the first full atomic snapshot of the pathway by which cancer cells defend themselves against treatments which are intended to destroy them.

"By blocking this repair 'ignition switch', it may be possible to boost traditional treatments."

FANCL is a key component in a cell-signalling system known as the 'Fanconi Anaemia pathway' which was not properly understood until now.

Faults affecting the pathway can lead to Fanconi Anaemia, a disorder associated with skeletal abnormalities, short stature and various cancers.

However the new research, published in the journal Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, suggests that careful targeting of FANCL might help to fight cancer.

Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information, said: "This is important research which gets right to the heart of a tactic that cancer cells use to shield themselves from chemotherapy.

"These findings give us a promising target for potential drugs to 'soften up' cancer cells as chemotherapy is delivered."