Scientists have gotten a close look at how DNA is decoded in the body, which could open up new avenues for cancer treatment. Alessandro Vannini/Jeroen Claus

Scientists say they watched and took images of DNA being decoded and the new information about this process, which hands out instructions to the body, could help them fight cancer.

DNA is like the body’s source code and an enzyme called RNA polymerase copies the code so it can be used as an instruction manual, telling our little workers what proteins cells must build so we can function. A team of scientists used a powerful type of electron microscope to get a closeup look at the process of reading and copying DNA, known as transcription, their study in the journal Nature explained. The images gave them a new insight into how it works, as they watched DNA being separated into two strands so it could be copied.

They were able to see how “all the components of this sophisticated apparatus fit together and interact with each other during the initial stages of gene transcription,” researcher Alessandro Vannini said, according to the Institute of Cancer Research.

The way the copier pieces interact is where cancer comes in. Vannini explained that RNA polymerase and its helper molecules are “often overactive in cancer because cancer cells rely on a large number of protein building blocks to rapidly grow and divide.”

But scientists could potentially use the new look at transcription to design drugs that will prevent those molecules from coming together.

“Now we know how the components of this crucial molecular mechanism fit together, we may be able to design drugs that turn the system on or off — and these could offer a whole new way of treating cancer,” Vannini said in the institute’s statement.

The special electron microscope, called Cryo-EM, freezes objects to almost -300 degrees Fahrenheit and then takes an image of them. When the researchers used this technology on the RNA polymerase, they froze and took images of transcription at different stages and then put the images together to get a complete picture.