Damaging a cell's nucleolus could eliminate cancer cells by raising the levels of a crucial tumour prevention protein, experts have said.

Scientists from the University of Liverpool have observed that the cell component found inside the nucleus, called the nucleolus, directly regulates the level of a cancer-protector gene called p53. This gene, also known as the "guardian of the genome," triggers a "stop" signal blocking tumour development and preventing cells dividing out of control.

The p53 proteins enter nucleoli to be labelled for destruction. These "tagged" p53 proteins are then "broken up" in another part of the cell.

But heat, lack of nutrients, high or low salt levels and DNA damage stop the nucleolus from functioning. This, in turn, prevents p53 from being destroyed, leading to an automatic increase in the p53 levels and stopping cell division. Eventually the cell dies.

"This research implies that scientists can kill cancer cells by targeting the nucleoli to increase levels of protective p53. There is a whole range of new drug targets available and it may not be necessary to use only DNA damage techniques - such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy - to raise levels of p53," researcher Carlos Rubbi said in a statement.

Until now, nucleoli were just thought to be the places where ribosomes - "protein factories" - are made. This research shows nucleoli have additional cell control functions and provide the link between the detection of cell stress and the cells' response.

"We discovered p53 - the first natural 'tumour suppressor protein,' which protects cells from turning cancerous - more than 30 years ago. But decades later, our team and other scientists are still making incredible discoveries about the behaviour of p53 - and the many ways it regulates cells," Co-Discoverer of p53 Sir David Lane said.

"Today it is at the heart of new techniques being developed to treat cancer. And this latest finding, that a simple part of the cell could potentially be targeted to increase the levels of p53, is exciting news and has the potential to influence greatly the development of future approaches to destroying cancer cells," Lane added.

The research was presented today at the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI in Liverpool.