There are more than 900 different types of cancer currently identified, and many of them require very specific treatments, and can become resistant to chemotherapy as time goes on. Now, researchers at the Australian National University (ANU) have made a potentially huge breakthrough, working out how to cut off the supply of vital nutrients to cancer cells. The work opens the door to future treatments that could be less prone to resistance than many current methods, and could work across with a wide range of cancers.

The researchers worked to cut off the cancer cell's access to the amino acid glutamine by identifying and blocking its supply route. The cells use the amino acid when generating building blocks and for energy.

The team first had some success by genetically altering the cancer cells, but it found things to be a little more complicated than hoped, with that action setting off a biochemical alarm that opened a second gateway through which the cell could obtain the amino acid.

Undeterred, the team continued its work, and eventually managed to disable the second gateway using a technique known as RNA silencing. Combined, the two steps has an astonishing positive impact – without access to glutamine, cancer cell growth rate dropped by a huge 96 percent.

There's still a lot of work to be done, but the breakthrough could have a huge impact of cancer treatment. As blocking the glutamine transport mechanism is an external process, it would be both very difficult for the cancer cells to develop any kind of resistance, and the treatment should work across a wide range of cancers.

Now that it's known just how important the glutamine gateways are to cancer cells, the team is working hard to find drugs that shut them down, killing the disease.

"We have developed a set of tests which make it very easy to determine if a drug is targeting glutamine transporters," said lead study author Angelika Broer. "This means we can set robots to work that will tests tens of thousands of drugs for us over the next year or two."

The researchers published the details of their work in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Source: ANU