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Tuesday, 22 January, 2002, 02:27 GMT
Sweet success for cancer team
Cancer cells
Cancer cells have a sugar coating
Sugar molecules on the surface of cancer cells could be manipulated to stop a tumour growing, say scientists.

The team from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US, have developed a technique to alter the way the cancer cell works by exposing it to body chemicals that affect the sugar coating.

The surface of the cell is important because it governs how the cell interacts with its environment, receiving signals from other cells.

Scientists have produced cancer treatments that aim at other key chemical components of the cell coating, but none so far have tried to affect the cell by changing the sugars.

The MIT team put tumour cells in contact with body chemicals known to create different sugar fragments called heparinases.

Using one type of the enzyme, Hep I, actually seemed to make the cells grow faster. However, another chemical, Hep III, appeared to inhibit tumour cell growth.

Anti-cancer drugs

This marks it out as a possible route for anti-cancer drugs in the future.

Associate Professor Ram Sasisekharan, leading the project, said: "We were fascinated by the discovery that the tumour cell's sugar coat contains sugar sequences that can both promote and inhibit growth.

"Tumours might be kept in check by the body's production of specific enzymes that in turn release sugar fragments that keep tumour cells dormant."

A spokesman for the UK's Cancer Research Campaign said that it had been known for some time that sugars on the cell surface were involved in cell signalling.

He said: "Although studies of this type are still at an early stage, they hold considerable promise for identifying novel growth mechanisms in cancer and new targets for drug designs."

The research was published in the journal The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

See also:

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