University scientists have found a gene that may trigger the spread of an aggressive form of breast cancer.
The team are the first to identify the key role played by the gene c35 in causing the spread of HER2 positive breast cancer.
It is thought the gene helps cancer cells break off from the primary tumour and move around through other tissues in the body.
The researchers at the University's Breakthrough Breast Cancer Research Unit hope that drugs that target this gene could in future help to prevent cancer spread.
The research is published today online in the British Journal of Cancer.
HER2 positive cancer represents 20 per cent of breast cancer cases.
It is an aggressive form that grows and spreads more quickly than other forms of the disease.
It is currently treated with the drug herceptin, which prevents the cancer cells multiplying.
Scientists hope this discovery will help them develop a new treatment.
This gene could well be responsible for the spread of the cancer. It causes the cells to detach from the original tumour and to start spreading inside the breast and further afield. We are at an early stage but there is now a real possibility there could one day be a new treatment for women with HER2-positive breast cancer.
Professor David Harrison, Director of the Breakthrough Breast Cancer Research Unit at the University, said: “This is an important development because we now know one of the key triggers to the spread of this type of cancer.
“It is exciting to know there is a drug out there which could potentially stop this process happening and save the lives of women with breast cancer.
“We now need to do more work in the lab to prove this concept before we can start patient trials.”