Scientists in the United Kingdom have identified a “rogue” gene that attacks and breaks down a naturally-occurring protein in the body which normally prevents cancer cells spreading.

Blocking the culprit gene, known as WWP2, by the right drugs could stop cancer in its tracks, says the team from the University of East Anglia (UEA). The scientists found that by blocking WWP2, which is an enzymic bonding agent found inside cancer cells, levels of the natural inhibitor are boosted and the cancer cells remain dormant.

The discovery could lead to the development of a new generation of 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, says scientist Andrew Chantry from the UEA.

The initial discovery was made while researchers were studying a group of natural cancer cell inhibitors called ‘Smads’.

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 eleswhere, scientists say.

“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,” says Chantry.

“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, made easier by the deeper understanding of the biological processes revealed in this study.”