The method centres on a new approach to cancer gene therapy being devised by a team at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, which has worked out a way of tricking a breast tumour cell into activating a drug that will kill it.
The scientists from the charity's cancer unit at London's Hammersmith Hospital have asked for approval to start trials with 10 volunteer patients with advanced breast cancer. Dr Nick Lemoine, the team leader, said: 'This is the first time anyone has attempted to use a cancer gene to destroy a cancer cell.'
The method, published in the journal Gene Therapy, is called genetic prodrug activation therapy.
Breast cancer has been chosen for the trial because the team identified the molecular 'switch' controlling a gene called erbB-2 which is turned on in breast cancer cells but not in normal cells.
High levels of the protein produced by the gene are found in tumour cells in about a fifth of patients, whose outlook is very poor.
Dr Lemoine said: 'The first trial will not be an attempt to cure. It's fact-finding - checking whether we can make the cells activate the drug in the nodules.
'It works in the laboratory, but that is a long way from making it effective in patients.'