SCIENTISTS from the region have discovered a novel way of using light therapy to kill cancer cells.

The breakthrough could open the doors to many revolutionary cancer treatments.

The team from BioTransformations Limited, a company with strong links to Newcastle University, has developed the process, called light activated therapeutics.

It involves taking human antibodies which are known to attack cancerous cells and "cloaking" them in a light sensitive compound.

The scientists have found that this process allows the antibodies to enter the body without causing any harm to healthy cells and helps them target tumours.

It is hoped that clinical trials involving North-East patients could begin in about 12 months' time.

Previously, the use of antibodies has run into difficulties because they are very difficult to target accurately and they can sometimes damage normal, healthy cells.

But the Newcastle team has discovered a way to help the antibodies penetrate the body without side-effects and more effectively target the cancer cells.

Once inside the body, the specially treated antibodies attach themselves to the cancerous growth.

When they are exposed to light, the antibodies are activated to either kill the tumour directly or destroy it by carrying toxins to the site.

Janette Thomas, project director at the Centre of Excellence for Life Sciences (Cels), the Government-funded body which is funding the research as part of efforts to stimulate the North-East life science economy, said: "This is the first development in the world to use light to direct the body's own immune response to a specific area."

The use of antibodies as a treatment for cancer is not new. Around the world more than $100bn have been spent on this area of research. But while there have been some successes, the overall results has been disappointing.

Professor Colin Self, who founded BioTransformation in 2002, said: "For the antibodies to work, they must be ultra-specific; directly targeting the cancerous growth and leaving normal cells unharmed."

In early trials, untreated antibodies could not be targeted with enough accuracy and could affect non-cancerous tissue.

Prof Self said:"By cloaking the antibodies with this process, our intention is to achieve a dramatic increase in antibody specificity, initiating a highly tumour-specific immune response when the cancerous area is exposed to light. This would lead to a more effective treatment, greatly reducing potentially dangerous side effects."

This technique could also be used to mop up any traces of cancer following the surgical removal of a tumour.

Prof Self said: "If a surgeon is worried that there may be traces of cancerous cells left behind following the removal of a tumour, the affected area can be illuminated, activating antibodies and stimulating the body's own immune system to kill any remaining tumour cells and preventing re-growth.

"There are numerous other applications which will not require surgery - simply the application of light to the required areas," Prof Self added.

Ms Thomas said the new approach has the potential to "very quickly revolutionise the treatment of cancer, transforming existing, essentially worthless, antibodies into ultra-specific therapeutic agents."

Where previous projects using antibodies have failed, the Newcastle team is optimistic the new technology will provide a breakthrough. Cels works with the university and businesses in the region and acts as a co-ordinating hub for academic and business activity.