The common "spiny" starfish, which is found in the English Channel and the North Sea, lays millions of eggs which contain an abundant supply of an enzyme found in human cells. Scientists are harvesting the enzyme, responsible for regulating cell growth in the eggs to allow them to develop anti-cancer treatments.
In 60 per cent of all cancers, including breast, bowel and lung cancer, a gene mutation means that some cells are permanently switched "on" and so divide uncontrollably. It is this mass of cells which produces a tumour. By blocking the enzyme involved - turning the switch "off" - scientists could effectively put a brake on cell growth and stop cancerous cells from forming tumours.
The scientists have already found one prototype molecule that blocked the enzyme. When tested against human cancerous cells, in the laboratory, it prevented them from multiplying. "We are using the starfish enzyme as a tool to help us develop a drug that can switch cell growth off," said Professor Herbie Newell, of the University of Newcastle and the Cancer Research Campaign, who is leading the research.
"There is a particularly plentiful supply of one of the enzymes we are looking at in the eggs of this starfish. We are hoping to be able to clinically trial a drug within three years."