Researchers at the University of the West of England in Bristol have found a way to track the growth of deadly cancer cells in the body using a seaweed extract. They hope to use the technique to discover why some cancer cells break free from their original growth and travel around the body, causing potentially deadly secondary cancers.
The scientists are extracting the protein lectin from a type of seaweed found on most beaches. The process involves collecting 14kg of seaweed to extract just 5mg of lectin, which is then linked to a marker dye before it attaches itself to cancer cells.
The dye allows scientists to track movement of the cancer cells as they split off to form secondary cancers, or metastases, which can be much harder to treat than primary cancers.
Although the seaweed dye does not help scientists to learn why certain cancers are more deadly than others, they hope that it will teach them more about the chemical changes which make the cancer cells divide.
The lecturer Ray Griffin, who heads the project, said: "Maybe in the future it will help us to stop the cancer cells breaking off in the first place and I believe that will be a major victory." Mr Griffin added that the seaweed marker could provide more information for the diagnosis of cancer and also some "novel therapies".
The procedure, which uses protein from the Codium fragile variety of seaweed, is entirely natural. Mr Griffin was particularly excited by this aspect of his team's find. "It is really important at a time when we are cutting down the earth's rain forests that we use a product which is growing naturally. Who knows what other useful resources there are just waiting to be discovered," he said.