Mayo Clinic researchers in Jacksonville, Fla., say they have discovered a way to alter the shape of cancer cells, which prevents the cells from moving and spreading through the body.

Cancer cells move through the body's tissues using mechanisms that give them the propensity to spread.

The Mayo researchers used protein changes to "turn these cells into shapes like a round fried egg and an exaggerated starfish that sticks out in many directions — both of which cannot now move."

The study is published in the December issue of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

"Investigators say they have already identified a number of agents — some already used in the clinic for different disorders — that may force shape-shifting in tumor cells," says a Mayo announcement.

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Breast- and brain-cancer tumor samples were used for the study because, untreated, both tend to be lethal when they metastasize, or spread, through the organs or brain.

The protein called "Syx" is "key to determining how tumor cells migrate," the researchers say.

"It is the spread — the metastasis — of cancer that is largely responsible for the death of cancer patients, so stopping these cells from migrating could potentially provide a treatment that saves lives," saidPanos Z. Anastasiadis, chair of the Mayo Department of Cancer Biology in Florida.