A key process that allows pancreatic cancer cells to grow and spread around the body can be reversed, British scientists say.
Researchers suggest the findings could pave the way for new treatments of the disease.
Their study shows that a protein called GREM1 is key to controlling the type of cells found in pancreatic cancer.
According to the Institute of Cancer Research, London (ICR), manipulating the levels of this protein can both fuel and reverse the ability of these cells to become more aggressive.
"We have shown that it is possible to reverse cell fate in pancreatic cancer in the lab, turning back the clock on aggressive tumours and switching them to a state that makes them easier to treat," study senior author Professor Axel Behrens said.
"By better understanding what drives the aggressive spread of pancreatic cancer, we hope to now exploit this knowledge and identify ways to make pancreatic cancer less aggressive, and more treatable."
Pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rates of common cancers.
Less than seven per cent of people will survive for five years or more.
Researchers studied pancreatic cancer with the gene that makes the GREM1 protein switched off in mice, and in pancreatic "mini-tumours".
They found that switching off the GREM1 caused the tumour cells to rapidly change shape and develop new properties that help them invade new tissues and migrate around the body.
Within 10 days, all the tumour cells changed their identity into a dangerous, invasive cell type, researchers found.
But crucially, the scientists discovered that boosting GREM1 levels could reverse this process and cause invasive cell types to revert into a less dangerous form.
Researchers hope to use this knowledge to find ways to reverse more advanced pancreatic cancer into a less aggressive form, which is easier to treat.
However, the science is at an early stage and significant further research is needed.
The findings are published in Nature.
Australian Associated Press