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(CNN) -- Scientists have unlocked the genetic code that could pave the way to a new generation of highly effective cancer drugs with none of the painful side effects of existing treatments.
Researchers based at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center identified 87 human genes in cancer cells that had a significant impact on the effectiveness of a common chemotherapy drug, paclitaxel.
By "turning off" those genes using a groundbreaking technique called RNA interference, lung cancer cells were found to be 10,000 times more sensitive to the drug.
Michael White, professor of cell biology at UT Southwestern and senior author of study, published in the latest edition of the journal Nature, said the breakthrough could ultimately enable cancer patients to be given lower doses of drugs, reducing their vulnerability to toxic side effects while simultaneously increasing their effectiveness.
Common symptoms of paclitaxel and other chemotherapy treatments include nausea, loss of appetite, hair loss and joint pain.
"Chemotherapy is a very blunt instrument," said White. "It makes people sick, and its effects are very inconsistent. Identifying genes that make chemotherapy drugs more potent at lower doses is a first step toward alleviating these effects in patients."
Using new genetic screening technology, which utilizes robots to mix cultures of cancer cells, drugs and tiny quantities of gene-blocking RNA molecules, the researchers were able to test the effectiveness of the drug on more than 21,000 individual genes.
"Being able to do this in human cells, and being able to do it fast -- this is very powerful," White said.
"The idea of the screen was to be able to take advantage of the new generation of technology to silence any gene we want. That's the power of a genome-wide screen -- you go in without any expectations and let the data tell you what's important."
But more effective cancer drugs are merely one of the many health benefits expected of RNA interference, which some experts speculate could be the most significant advance in medical science since antibiotics, providing a cure for a myriad of genetic conditions, diseases and degenerative disorders.
The two scientists who discovered RNA interference, Andrew Fire of Stanford University and Craig Mello from the University of Massachusetts, were awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine last year for their 1998 Nature paper which first reported the effect.
A similar molecule to DNA, RNA (ribonucleic acid) plays a key role in the transfer of genetic information to proteins. By manipulating RNA -- which can be produced synthetically -- scientists are able to inhibit or manipulate particular genes.
Alexandre Akoulitchev, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford, who earlier this year led a study which successfully used RNA interference to switch off a gene responsible for the rapid proliferation of cancer cells, said the technique had already caused a "quiet revolution" in biology.
For now, however, the technique has only proved effective for treating cancer cells with paclitaxel, rather than other common chemotherapy drugs such as vinorelbine and gemcitabine, said Angelique Whitehurst, the lead author on the Southwestern Medical Center study.
Anthea Martin of the Cancer Research UK said the study could eventually mean lower drugs doses and less painful side effects for cancer patients. But she warned the research was still clinically untested.
"The study only looked at isolated cancer cells in the laboratory - this is a great first step, but we don't know if the technique will work in tumours. This will take more research, and we look forward to future developments."
RNA interference could make chemotherapy more effective.