PIONEERING research by British scientists has found a new way of fighting cancer – sending tumour cells to sleep.

Experiments with skin cancer cells show they can be frozen into a permanent state of suspended animation, which stops them multiplying.

Although the cells do not die, the uncontrolled cell division characteristic of cancer is halted. The coma-like effect, known as senescence, is a natural defence the body uses to prevent damaged cells triggering cancers.

When the mechanism breaks down, rogue cells are left to multiply and a spreading cancer can result.

Scientists around the world have investigated senescence, but the British team is believed to be the first to show it can be reactivated once disabled.

Although the research has concentrated on aggressive skin cancers, it could lead to treatment for breast, prostate and pancreatic cancers, which between them kill almost 30,000 people a year in Britain.

Dr Colin Goding, who led scientists from the Marie Curie Research Institute in Oxted, Surrey, said:

“For the first time I think we’ve got something that really has the potential to make a difference.”

Cancers are often triggered by defective genes involved in the control of cell growth or division. When these oncogenes mutate, it is like “the accelerator in a car being jammed on”, said Dr Goding. The cell is continuously receiving instructions to divide.

Dr Goding said:

“We thought that when normal cells became melanomas, it wasn’t possible to switch on senescence – these are cancer cells, so by definition, they’ve overcome this braking mechanism.”

But the researchers found that when a gene called Tbx2 was inhibited in a proliferating melanoma cell, it switched on senescence. “This means we have potentially a new way of stopping cells dividing,” said Dr Goding.

He added that he did not expect to see clinical trials for another ten years. Nonetheless the findings, published today in the journal Cancer Research, are seen as a major step forward.