Scientists at the University of East Anglia have identified a rogue gene that appears to hamper the body's efforts to prevent the spread of cancer.
The WWP2 gene makes a protein that occurs inside cancer cells. It causes the break-down of another molecule in the body that normally prevents cancer cells from spreading, called Smad7.
But, the researchers found that when they blocked WWP2, levels of this natural protector protein, Smad7, increased and the cancer cells remained dormant - they didn't spread.
According to the research team, it may be possible to develop new drugs that deactivate WWP2 and restore the body's natural ability to fight the spread of cancer and prevent it from becoming advanced.
Lead author Dr Andrew Chantry, from the University of East Anglia's School of Biological Sciences, said that such a drug might be able to stop the spread of several forms of the disease, including breast, brain, bowel and skin cancer.
He explained: "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, made easier by the deeper understanding of the biological processes revealed in this study."
The study, which is published in the journal Oncogene, was predominantly funded by the Association of International Cancer Research.
Dr Mark Matfield, the association's scientific co-ordinator, added: "This is a perfect example of the way that basic research into cancer can open up ways to develop new ways to treat cancer."
Dr Kat Arney, science information manager at Cancer Research UK, 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."