Scientists in Yorkshire have identified a “Pac-man”-like protein that fights cancer by eating dying cells and helping to prevent the disease spreading.
Researchers say the protein mimics the behaviour of the popular video arcade game by eating neighbouring cells.
The Rac1 protein, discovered by researchers at Sheffield University, then clears away the dying cells, reducing the risk of inflammation.
Dr Nasreen Akhtar from the university’s Department of Oncology and Metabolism, made the breakthrough while studying the female breast.
Her team was hoping to better understand how the organ gets rid of dead cells and surplus milk when it is no longer required.
Dr Akhtar said: “It is thought that we shed the equivalent of our own body weight in dead cells every year. However, very little is known about how we get rid of them.”
The researchers say more than 90 per cent of cancers come from “epithelial” cells, which is why unlocking the mystery of how they work is essential.
Their study, published in the journal Developmental Cell, is thought to be hugely beneficial to cancer biologists.
Dr Akhtar said: “Rac1 is over expressed in various cancers including breast cancer and Rac1 inhibitors are currently being considered as anticancer therapies.
“However, until now virtually nothing was understood about what Rac1 does in healthy tissue and our study shows that in the breast one of its central roles is to prevent harmful inflammatory responses.
“Without Rac1 these responses are heightened and prolonged within tissues.
“Given that sustained inflammation is linked to cancer progression, the findings show that blocking Rac1 might not be a good idea.”