A newly discovered gene could be responsible for up to 75% of cancer spread.

The gene, discovered by researchers at the Sanger Institute in Cambridge, could represent a new therapeutic target for drug makers.

The study tested 810 sets of lab mice genetically modified to be missing certain specified genes. The same mice were then injected with melanoma cells to investigate the difference in cancer spread.

The team identified 23 genes associated with cancer cell spread with the absence of one, Spns2, leading to a reduction of 75% cancer cell spread to the lungs.

In addition to reducing cancer spread, an absence of Spns2 led to an increase in tumour-fighting immune system cells.

“This work supports the emerging area of immunotherapy, where the bodies’ own immune system is harnessed to fight cancer,” said Dr Anneliese Speak from the Sanger Institute. “Drugs could be designed to bind to the S1P transporter, preventing it from working and causing advantageous changes to the immune system. Investigation of further targets in the Spns2 pathway, or other targets identified in this study could help develop potential therapies.”

Research into Spns2’s role in humans needs to be conducted before confirming whether the gene could lead to the development of a new immunotherapy-based treatment.