A faulty gene that is key to the process of cancer spreading around the body has been discovered in a breakthrough that could provide a “window of opportunity” to stop the disease in its tracks.
British researchers believe that finding drugs that can inhibit the rogue gene could be available within a decade and form the basis of new generation of “one-size-fits-all” treatments.
Everyone is born with the gene WWP2 though scientists are still unsure as to its exact purpose in the body.
But they have discovered that it is present in high quantities at the time when tumours become malignant and start spreading around the body.
It is thought to attack and break down a natural inhibitor in the body which normally prevents tumours spreading or metastasising.
By switching it off it is hoped to render it harmless and the original tumour can be safely removed using surgery or radiotherapy.
Dr Andrew Chantry, who reported in the journal Oncogene, said his finding could inspire a new generation of drugs within the next decade that will stop the aggressive spread of most cancers including those of the breast, brain, colon and skin.
“We all have the gene but when it is faulty it hijacks this process and helps cancer to develop and spread to other parts of the body,” he said.
“This is what eventually kills cancer patients. If a tumour stayed in the same place it would just be a simple case of removing it with surgery every time.
“If we can restrict this gene before it has started working then it will provide a window of opportunity tot stop the cancer from spreading,” he said.
“We have already started experimenting with a molecule that we think can do the job and if that is the case we will have the basis of a new generation of ‘one-size-fits-all’ drugs for a range of cancers.”
Dr Chantry, a biological scientist at the University of East Anglia, and colleagues found by blocking WWP2 levels of the natural inhibitor are boosted and the cancer cells remain dormant.
“We are very excited and are already on the way to developing a new drug. We are now planning further experiments and then need to verify our findings in animal models and eventually clinical trials,” he said.
“But if all goes well we believe that cancer patients could be being treated by drugs that prevent the spread of their tumours in five to 10 years.”
The research was funded by UK-based charity the Association of International Cancer Research (AICR), with additional support from the Big C Charity and the British Skin Foundation.
Dr Mark Matfield, scientific coordinator of AICR, said: “This is a very exciting new discovery and a perfect example of the way that basic research into cancer can open up ways to develop new ways to treat cancer.”
The initial discovery was made while researchers were studying a group of natural cancer cell inhibitors called “Smads”.
Dr Surinder Soond, who spearheaded the experimental work in the laboratory, said: “This is a very novel and exciting approach to treating cancer and the spread of tumours which holds great potential.”
Cancer Research UK welcomed the study but warned a lot more work needs to be done before its viability can be proven.
The charity’s science information manager Dr Kat Arney said: “Over recent decades researchers all over the world have discovered genes that drive the growth and spread of cancer, and this research adds one more to this ever-growing list.
“But, while these new results aid our understanding of the complexities of cancer and could point towards potential leads for future anti-cancer drugs, the work is still at the laboratory stage.”