Scientists have discovered how genes cause bowel cancer cells to become resistant to treatments used against the disease, according to a new report.

Researchers at Queen's University in Belfast have said they have made a "significant breakthrough" in the potential treatment of bowel cancer. Their results have been published in the journal Cell Reports.

Dr Sandra van Schaeybroeck and her team discovered how two genes cause bowel cancer cells to become resistant to treatments used to fight the disease. The activity of the two genes, called MEK and MET, was uncovered when researchers at Queen's looked at all the different pathways and interactions taking place in bowel cancer cells.

Dr van Schaeybroeck and her colleagues found that these bowel cancers switch on a "survival mechanism" when they are treated with drugs that target faulty MEK genes. When researchers added drugs that also block the MET gene, the bowel cancer cells died.

The team are now testing a new approach to target these two genes in the most aggressive forms of bowel cancer in a European Commission-funded clinical trial that is being led by Dr van Schaeybroeck.

More than half of patients diagnosed develop an aggressive form of the disease that does not respond to standard therapy - the five-year overall survival in this patient group is less than 5%.