A new category of drug brakes the growth of treatment-resistant lung cancer among lab mice, according to a study published on Thursday in the science journal Nature.

The new type could add powerfully to a small family of drugs called epidermal growth factor receptor (EPFR) inhibitors, say its finders.

It tackles mutations in a specific form of lung tumour that often becomes hardened to frontline treatment, according to the study.

The molecule, identified by Pasi Janne and colleagues at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, stymied the growth of lung cancer among batches of genetically modified mice.

Their work focusses on so-called non-small-cell lung tumours, which account for 70 to 80 percent of bronchial cancers.

These tumours carry mutations that cause a particular protein, the EGFR, to be permanently activated.

The frontline drugs for tackling non-small-cell tumours are Iressa and Tarceva. They are designed to block the "switch," but secondary mutations often emerge that lead to drug resistance.

Much work remains to determine if the new compound can be a therapy for humans, says the study.

"Obviously these are very early days with respect to the possible use of these compounds in patients - we still have much to learn about their possible liabilities," said co-author Michael Eck in a press release.

"But I am optimistic that our approach is correct and that it will lead to an effective treatment for the thousands of non-small cell lung cancer patients worldwide who development resistance to Iressa and Tarceva every year."