Normally, when cells divide as part of the body's natural growth, renewal and healing processes. However, when this cell division takes place in an uncontrolled way, it results in cancer.
The researchers have found that a protein in the cells called 'Bub 1' is essential for normal cell division. They say that the cells will be unable to divide successfully if thegene that generates Bub 1 is "switched off".
"Bub 1 is an enzyme that controls several processes required for cell division to occur," said Dr Stephen Taylor, who led the research in the Faculty of Life Sciences.
"We have shown that mouse embryos lacking the Bub 1 gene are unable to develop. Older cell types also failed to divide when the gene is switched off, while male mice lacking Bub 1 became infertile as their sperm cells died," he added.
Since the deactivation of Bub1 in the animal had a profound effect on cell division at all stages of a cell's life, known as the 'cell cycle', the researchers are hopeful that it will have a similar effect on cancer cells.
"Before cells can divide they have to duplicate and then distribute their genetic material so that the two 'daughter' cells receive all the genetic information for further growth and development," said Dr Taylor, whose work is funded by the charity Cancer Research UK.
"The distribution phase has to be done with a high degree of accuracy - just one chromosome segregated incorrectly, for instance, leads to Down's syndrome - so the cell has a surveillance mechanism which acts as a brake to delay chromosome segregation until accuracy has been guaranteed," he added.
The researchers have found that this intricate surveillance mechanism fails and its accuracy is lost when the gene is switched off, resulting in cell death.
As the scientists have understood the precise role of the gene in normal cell division, they are now planning to test their theory on cancer cells.
"Unlike some other genes that become mutated in cancer cells, the Bub 1 gene appears normal indicating that it behaves in exactly the same way in cancer cells as it does in healthy cells," Dr. Taylor said. "If this is the case, then we can be confident that switching it off will stop cancer cells proliferating too. And while our normal cells don't divide that often, cancer cells divide more frequently, so hopefully by targeting Bub1 we will selectively kill cancer cells," he added.
The research, which began in 1999, has been published in the journal Developmental Cell.