British scientists have made a major breakthrough in understanding the spread of cancer. They’ve discovered why a protein that suppresses the growth of the disease in some patients causes it to spread in others.

According to researchers from the Beatson Institute in Glasgow, the discovery, explaining why some cancer cells break free and develop into new tumours, will drive future efforts into developing drugs that can find and then kill those itinerant cells.

They have found that a protein, P53, which suppresses cancer in healthy people changes sides or “flips” in some sufferers, allowing cancerous cells to break away, move and survive elsewhere in the body. P53 is mutated or flipped in 50 per cent of all tumours, which means that this breakthrough could eventually stop the disease from spreading in thousands of patients a year. Understanding the basic science behind why some cancers cells can break away from a tumour, move and then thrive in other parts of the body is the key to improving the survival rates for cancer patients.

The study was conducted by two teams of experts working side by side in the pioneering Cancer Research UK institute. ” Understanding what goes wrong with cells and proteins to allow cancer to spread will make it much easier to fix or stop,” the Independent quoted Professor Karen Vousden, co-author of the study, as saying.

The study has been published in the peer-reviewed journal Cell last week.