UK researchers have discovered a new molecule that kills off cancer cells by starving them of oxygen, offering a new target for treating the disease.

Cancer Research UK scientists at the University of Southampton found that this molecule can stop a master switch called HIF-1 - used by cancer cells to adapt to low levels of oxygen - from working.

As tumours grow their demand for oxygen and nutrients will at some point outstrip the local supply, and this is where HIF-1 comes in, as it helps cancer cells survive by triggering the formation of new blood vessels to help meet this demand.

But an analysis of 3.2 million potential compounds generated by specially engineered bacteria has uncovered one molecule able to inhibit HIF-1 and thus essentially 'starve' cancer cells to death.

Researcher Ali Tavassoli hopes that the finding "will one day lead to effective drugs that can stop cancers adapting to a low oxygen environment, stopping their growth", while Julie Sharp, senior science information manager at Cancer Research UK, said it was "an important step towards creating drugs that could halt cancer in its tracks".

The research is published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.