The Cancer Research UK team at the Beatson Institute in Glasgow have shown how switching off a key protein in pancreatic cells slows the spread of the disease to other tissues – a key step which can leave patients with just weeks to live.
Experts said the finding paved the way to developing new drugs to tackle the disease.
Each year around 700 people in Scotland die with pancreatic cancer.
The latest research, published in the journal Gastroenterology, provides some of the first insights into how elevated levels of the protein called “fascin” help cancer cells penetrate the tightly packed cells lining the abdomen.
Pancreatic cancer is difficult to treat because patients do not usually have symptoms until the disease begins to spread, meaning survival rates remain low with only four per cent of patients alive after five years.
Lead researcher Dr Laura Machesky said: “We know fascin is overactive in many cancers, but this is the first time we’ve been able to show that tumours lacking this protein are less able to develop and spread.
“What’s more, we found pancreatic cancer patients with elevated fascin levels were more prone to the cancer coming back and tended to succumb to the disease more quickly.
“It’s early days, but we think that developing drugs to block fascin could potentially help halt cancer spread in patients with pancreatic cancer, and other cancers with higher levels of this protein.”
The researchers studied human cancer samples and also mice predisposed to get pancreatic cancer.
They discovered that when fascin was absent, pancreatic cancer was less able to spread around the body.
In mice, this delayed the onset of the disease and resulted in smaller tumours.
Eleanor Barrie, senior science information manager at Cancer Research UK, said: “This new discovery paves the way for new drugs that could potentially slow cancer spread, reducing the chances that cells left behind after surgery could go on to re-grow the cancer.
“Pancreatic cancer is notoriously difficult to treat - fewer than 4 per cent of patients survive for five years or more, a situation that has seen little improvement in recent decades.
“We’ve recently announced increased funding for research that will give patients like this with hard to treat cancers the hope of a much brighter future.”