SCIENTISTS at the University of York say they have made a major breakthrough in understanding what triggers the formation of cancer cells.

Professor Norman Maitland, who leads the team of researchers, said the discovery marked “a fundamental shift” in understanding how prostate cancer cells spread and survive treatment.

It is hoped the findings, which were funded by Yorkshire Cancer Research (YCR), will open the way to the development of drugs and more effective therapies that work against the root cause of the disease.

Explaining his findings, Professor Maitland said: “The cells become selfish by surviving outside normal controls that exist in the prostate and thrive at the expense of their neighbours, ensuring that the genetic accident becomes permanent and passed from generation to generation. This process appears to be essential for the initiation of prostate cancer.”

He said: “This discovery marks a fundamental shift in our understanding of how solid cancers start. It is believed that ‘root’ cancer cells arise from healthy stem cells going wrong – for example certain controls can be turned off which allow the cells to keep growing and invade surrounding tissue.

Bryan Metcalf, 66, of Hambleton near Selby and chairman of the Selby Prostate Cancer Support Group, described the latest breakthrough as “extremely good news”.

He has been receiving treatment for the disease since 1996 and said: “Anything which helps with the search for treatment is very good. It’s been 17 years since I was diagnosed and I’m still batting (NOT battling).

“Every test costs thousands of pounds but it’s money well spent. Professor Maitland likened his stem cell research to a game of Where’s Wally? and dealing with it has been his top priority.”

Professor Maitland and his team in the University’s Department of Biology were the first to isolate prostate cancer stem cells in 2005.

Speaking on the latest breakthrough, Kathryn Scott, head of research funding at YCR, said: “This exciting discovery is another step forward in our understanding of how prostate cancer begins.

“Professor Maitland has detected one of the earliest possible changes in the development of prostate cancer.

"The findings mean that new therapies can now be developed which specifically target the protein identified, killing the stem cells that remain after chemotherapy while leaving healthy cells untouched.”