Cancer cells
Cancer cells are exposed when they squeeze through small gapsDr. Cecil Fox/National Cancer Institute

A weakness identified in cell division processes could be used to target and halt the spread of cancer in the body, scientists have suggested. Cells that are moving or replicating through the body suffer 'squeezing' damage which must be repaired by a protein complex, and targeting this repair process could effectively kill the cell.

A research team from PSL Research University investigated the ESCRT III protein complex and its role in repairing the protective layers around a cell nucleus (the nuclear envelope) after division. Leaving the nucleus exposed would kill the cell's DNA and prevent further division and spread through the body.

To test this, scientists used fluorescent markers to track proteins in mouse cells and track what happens when the cell is being repaired. When the scientists removed a single part of the protein to stop it from working, the nuclear envelope of the mouse cell was not repaired.

This demonstrated the importance of the protein in cell division and opens an avenue of investigation for targeting the proteins responsible for helping cancer cells reproduce. The research was published in Science.

In a separate study, also published in Science, cancer cells were found to have abnormal levels of the proteins that affect the nuclear envelope, which helped speed the spread through the body. This is seen as further evidence for the potential of targeting repair proteins to inhibit nuclear envelope repair and kill off cancer cells.

The researchers from Cornell University said: "It may represent a particular weakness of cancer cells and an opportunity to develop novel drugs by specifically targeting these cells. For example, by blocking nuclear envelope repair and inhibiting DNA damage repair."