Chemotherapy - a grueling treatment of cancer-busting chemicals - could become less toxic for patients based on new research into how cells shuttle the drugs inside.

For chemotherapy to work, the chemical brew must enter cells through gatekeeper transporters and Sunday, researchers at Duke University revealed the structure of one transporter important in the shuttling of chemotherapy drugs into cells.

The result could result in smarter design of chemotherapy drugs that enter into more cancerous cells and avoid healthy cells, the researchers said.

Knowing the structure and properties of the transporter molecule may be the key to changing the way that some chemotherapies, for example, could work in the body to prevent tumor growth, Seok-Yong Lee, assistant biochemistry professor at Duke University and senior author, said in a statement.

The journal Nature published the study online Sunday.

Chemotherapy treatments typically result in a host of side effects, including anemia, hair loss, fatigue and nausea, according to the National Cancer Institute.

The research points to one approach doctors could use to reduce chemotherapy drug levels in patients and thereby reduce side effects.

The focus of the study was a transporter that shuttles molecules made of nucleic acids one of the building blocks of the genetic material DNA. Interestingly, some chemotherapeutic drugs resemble nucleic acids, so researchers figured that knowing the structure of the gatekeeper could help in the design of future cancer drugs.

If you can improve the interactions between the transporter and the drug, you won't need as much of the drug to get it into the tumor cells efficiently, Lee said in a statement.

Knowing the shape of the transporters will let scientists design drugs that are recognized well by this transporter, he added.

The problem with chemotherapy is that the toxic drugs enter both healthy and cancerous cells. The drugs typically enter fewer healthy cells because normal cells divide much more slowly than cancerous cells, scientists have found.

By lowering the amount of chemotherapeutic drug, researchers might be able to lower the side effects common in cancer patients undergoing treatments.

Healthy cells don't divide as often as tumor cells, so lowering the amount of drug given overall would be an effective approach to killing tumors while protecting patients, Lee said.

Lee won the National Institute of General Medical Sciences Award for the research.