A PROFESSOR has been awarded £1.8 million to try to find new and kinder cancer treatments for future generations.

Laurence Pearl and his team at the University of Sussex are running a five-year project to help develop new drugs that not only kill cancer cells but also make existing treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy work better.

The team hopes these new drugs will be less toxic and damaging to patients and lead ultimately to cures, rather than just prolonging life.

The grant from Cancer Research UK will enable scientists to examine the three-dimensional structure of specific molecules in cancer cells, with a level of detail which has so far not been possible.

Professor Pearl said: “Most of the classic toxic chemotherapies and radiation work through exploiting the defects in DNA ‘repair kits’ in the cancer cells.

“We’ve only really understood this in the last ten years.

“Treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy help thousands of cancer patients survive.

“They can be curative but they are also extremely vicious and nasty and carry all sorts of side effects.

“That’s why we are starting to see people who were treated for cancer as children and saved 20, 30, 40 years ago, who are now getting cancers that are a result of the DNA-damaging treatment they received.

“At the moment, what we are doing is ‘beating’ a normal cell and a cancer cell with a club and just hoping the cancer cell dies first.”

Professor Pearl’s research is at the forefront of DNA and molecular studies and he is a leading international investigator in the field of structural biology.

For him, the devil is in the detail – the microscopic detail of the hidden machinery of the cell.

The DNA in cells is constantly being damaged and repaired. To overcome this, cells use DNA repair systems – a kind of “repair kit” – whose job is to keep the DNA intact and working properly. But if the repair kit doesn’t work, it can cause cells to grow and divide out of control and lead to cancer.

“What we want to do is understand how these ‘repair kits’ work and how they go wrong,” said Professor Pearl. “Then we want to figure out how to develop drugs to stop them working or alter the way they work, and ultimately kill cancer cells.

“We’re hoping our work will result in the development of new drugs that not only work well, but also have fewer side effects.”

The funding will support the salaries and running expenses of four postdoctoral researchers.