SCIENTISTS have discovered a rogue gene that they say could hold the key to finding a cure for cancer.
The breakthrough by researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA), has been hailed as an "exciting new discovery" by the St Andrews-based Association of International Cancer Research (AICR), which funded the research.
The researchers hope their discovery will lead to the development of a new generation of anti-cancer drugs within the next decade.
A spokesman for the university said: "The discovery is a breakthrough in our understanding of how cancer spreads.
"It is hoped the research will lead to new drugs that halt the critical late stage of the disease when cancer cells spread to other parts of the body.
"The culprit gene - known as WWP2 - is an enzymic bonding agent found inside cancer cells.
"It attacks and breaks down a natural inhibitor in the body which normally prevents cancer cells spreading. The UEA team found that by blocking WWP2, levels of the natural inhibitor are boosted and the cancer cells remain dormant.
"If a drug was developed that deactivated WWP2, conventional therapies and surgery could be used on primary tumours, with no risk of the disease taking hold elsewhere."
Dr Andrew Chantry, who led the research at the university's School of Biological Sciences, said it could lead to the development of new drugs within the next decade that could be used to stop the aggressive spread of most forms of the disease, including breast, brain, colon and skin cancer.
He said: "I think we're really on to something important if we can put a wall around a cancer and lock it in place.
"The late stages of cancer involve a process known as metastasis - a critical phase in the progression of the disease that cannot currently be treated or prevented.
"The challenge now is to identify a potent drug that will get inside cancer cells and destroy the activity of the rogue gene.
"This is a difficult but not impossible task."
He added: "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.
"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 ten years."
The research - revealed in the medical journal Oncogene - was funded by AICR, with additional support from the Big C Charity and the British Skin Foundation.
Dr Mark Matfield, the scientific co-ordinator 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."