SCIENTISTS at Oxford University have been awarded a £1.6m grant to help unravel how DNA cell repair can be used to create safer cancer treatments.

Professors Peter McHugh and Chris Schofield, together with Professor Opher Gileadi, have been awarded the funding by Cancer Research UK ahead of World Cancer Day tomorrow.

The DNA contained in our cells holds our genetic blueprint – the genome – and the aim of the five-year project is to better understand why dangerous changes in certain cells occur and to study a group of specific repair protein called MBL (metallo B-lactamases).

Professor McHugh, who is Associated Professor and senior group leader at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine at Oxford University, said it was a field of biological research that is currently largely understudied.

He said: “We are unashamedly interested in the detail. The sort of family of enzymes we are working with here, there really is no precedent, but that makes it very interesting in better understanding what individual cancers look like.”

Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy work by killing the rogue cancer cells DNA, but in the process they also kill healthy cells, weakening the immune system.

The grant will enable the team to look more closely at the MBL family of DNA repair proteins with the hope that targeting these enzymes will enable the tumour cells to become sensitised to chemotherapy and radiotherapy and this could help develop less damaging treatments.

Professor Schofield, head of organic chemistry, explained: “Most cancer drugs are aggressive, so if in the future we can reduce the dosage used that would be a major step.

“One of the reasons why this field hasn’t been widely explored is because it is very challenging technically. There is a lot of cell based work and there will be a long research road ahead of us leading from the purified proteins to human cancer cells.”

“This is very much an international study involving researchers from around Europe and Asia who will be part of this project.

"Often cancer drugs can work for a while and then stop working due to resistance so there are lots of challenges ahead.”

Nell Barrie, Cancer Research UK’s senior science information manager, said: “Understanding how cancer cells repair damage to their DNA could help develop kinder drugs that target cancer more effectively.”