The first drugs that stop cancer cells resisting treatment could be available within the next decade.
This resistance is the biggest challenge faced by those fighting the disease, with some treatments failing because the deadliest cancer cells adapt and survive.
A new research centre will bring together almost 300 scientists “meeting the challenge of cancer evolution head on”, according to Paul Workman, chief executive of Britain’s Institute of Cancer Research (ICR).
Prof Workman said: “Cancer’s ability to adapt, evolve and become drug-resistant is the cause of the vast majority of deaths from the disease and the biggest challenge we face in overcoming it.”
The ICR has invested £75m in the new Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery at its Sutton campus and is appealing for £15m to finish the project.
Scientists there are concentrating on two research paths.
The first is known as evolutionary herding – forcing cancer cells to adapt in a way that makes them susceptible to a second drug, pushing them towards an evolutionary “dead end”.
The second path focuses on drugs targeting cancer’s ability to evolve and resist treatment.
Researchers are working on stopping the Apobec protein molecule, which normally helps the immune system adapt to infectious diseases but can be hijacked by some cancers to speed up the evolution of drug resistance.
The new drugs would make cancer controllable for many years, much like HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. It could also make it more curable.
Dr Andrea Sottoriva, who will be deputy director of cancer evolution in the new centre, said: “Within our new Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery, we plan to use cancer’s survival instinct against it through an approach we call ‘evolutionary herding’.
“By encouraging cancer to evolve resistance to a treatment of our choice, we can cause it to develop weaknesses against other drugs – and hopefully send it down dead ends and to its own destruction.”
Dr Olivia Rossanese, who will be head of biology in the new centre, said: “We believe this will be the first treatment in the world that rather than dealing with the consequences of cancer’s evolution and resistance, aims to directly confront the disease’s ability to adapt and evolve in the first place.”
Prof Workman said the drugs would need around 10 years of testing and trials before they could potentially be available for patients.
He added: “We firmly believe that, with further research, we can find ways to make cancer a manageable disease in the long term and one that is more often curable, so patients can live longer and with a better quality of life.”