Researchers have created 3D-printed models of protein complexes, vital components in the process of DNA replication, and these could hold the key to future cancer treatment, a study says.

When our cells copy their DNA to replicate, it is vital the process runs smoothly, otherwise it can lead to cell death or cancer.

To get DNA replication right, cells use a complex “machine”, made from hundreds of components.

Researchers from the Imperial College London tried to create large-scale 3D printed models of these protein component structures, based on high resolution microscope images.

The 3D models help to visualise how tiny protein components assemble together to form the complex copying machine, each and every time it is required, said the study released on Tuesday.

Through the models, the researchers found that if they blocked one key protein, Cdc6, from joining the “machine”, the “machine” jammed and DNA copying stopped.

So Cdc6 motor activity made sure the process worked smoothly, and kept the production line going, said led researcher Christian Speck. “It is a sort of quality control protein.”

The results may help to improve cancer treatments. Current chemotherapy drugs kill cancer cells by damaging their DNA, but they can also harm the DNA in healthy cells. This can cause mutations that ultimately drive the cells to develop into secondary tumours.

If researchers could develop a treatment that targets the cellular machinery that copies DNA, instead of targeting the DNA itself, they may be able to reduce the risk of such side effects.