TRAIL (tumor necrosis factor-related apoptosis inducing ligand) has been proposed as a treatment for cancer of the colon and esophagus - as well as the lung, breast and ovary.
But development of the therapy suffered a setback earlier this year when researchers reported that it appeared to destroy healthy cells in the liver.
Writing in Cancer Research, a team from the University of Pennsylvania, US, say they have now found a way to prevent these side effects.
Laboratory studies on colon cancer cells showed that TRAIL worked against cancer through two pathways involving the enzymes caspase 8 and caspase 9. But it mainly acted against the healthy liver through caspase 9, they said.
Researcher Dr Wafik El-Deiry said: "Part of the reason we've been so excited about this treatment is because it seems to be very effective on a wide range of human cancers. It was on its way toward clinical trials, and then there was this set-back.
"But now we've solved the toxicity problem. Within the context of clinical trials, we should be able to protect the liver while still killing cancer cells.
"What we are proposing is a schedule of treatments that would avoid using chemotherapy or radiation at the same time we use TRAIL with a caspase 9 inhibitor. That will increase the safety and strength of both therapies."
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