US researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center have found that by targeting a "previously unappreciated" protein, they could discover a new way to treat aggressive bowel cancers.
The findings were published in the journal Cell, and they showed that the TAK1 protein was key to the growth of KRAS-dependant cancer cells.
However, by blocking the protein's activity it was possible to kill these cells, and the process triggered a suicide which is known as apoptosis.
"This study shows that if you understand the interrelationships between all the signalling pathways in a particular type of tumour, you may uncover a vulnerability," said co-author of the study Dr Daniel Haber.
According to the NHS, bowel cancer is the third most common form of the disease in the UK, with nearly 40,000 cases registered in 2008.
It is most common in those over the age of 60, with 80 per cent of instances developing in pensioners.
Previously, it has been found that a diet high in red or processed meats and a high intake of alcohol and smoking can increase the chances of getting bowel cancer.
Professor Owen Sansom, a cell signalling expert from Cancer Research UK's Beatson Institute, said that the discovery could lead to new treatments being developed to combat aggressive bowel cancer.
"The TAK1 protein has previously been linked to inflammation, but this is the first time it has been shown to play a key role in cancer. People whose bowel cancer is driven by a mutant KRAS gene tend to have the least favourable outlook, and new-generation targeted therapies like cetuximab aren't generally effective," he added.
Professor Sansom went on to say that the results from Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center suggest that, in theory, drugs that block TAK1 could be helpful for at least a proportion of these patients.