The manner in which some cancers return after treatment can been explained by looking at their ability to reverse a natural self-destruction process, according to new research.
Apoptosis is a type of programmed cell suicide that allows the body to rid itself of damaged and potentially dangerous cells.
Research, published in the British Journal of Cancer, shows that cancer cells can reverse this process, regaining their shape and function while continuing to divide.
In a recent study, Chinese scientists used chemicals on human cervical, skin, liver and breast cancer cells to initiate apoptosis.
Normally, there is a "point of no return" in most cells where they are driven to suicide, even when the death trigger is removed.
But researchers found cancer cells crossing this point were still able to recover once the suicide-inducing chemicals had been taken away.
They only failed to survive once the nuclei containing the bulk of their DNA began to disintegrate, an event right at the end of the cell suicide process.
Professor Ming-Chiu Fung, from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said: "Our finding sparks new leads to research what drives cancer cells to come back to life after chemotherapy treatment. Or to what extent this ability of cancer cells to reverse cell death contributes to their continued division and growth during cycles of anticancer treatment. Answers to these questions will provide potential new therapeutic targets in our battle against cancer."