A team of British scientists has shed more light on how cancer might be spread in the body, describing a so-called "chase-and-run" phenomenon involving malignant and healthy cells.

Researchers at University College London have discovered that cancer cells are attracted to healthy cells and follow them around until they group together and spread the disease to different organs.  

Healthy cells try to escape when contact is made, but the chemical molecules they produce continue to attract their diseased counterparts, the scientists found.

The findings were published in Nature Cell Biology.

In their study, the UCL researchers used embryonic cells similar to cancer cells, called neural crest cells, as well as placode cells which mimic the behaviour of healthy cells.

Neural crest cells chased the placode cells when they were placed next to each other.

A news release posted on UCL’s website says the authors of the study are “confident” that a similar effect takes place when cancer cells attach themselves to healthy cells in order to migrate. 

Lead author Dr. Roberto Mayor said the discovery could lead to new cancer treatments that would focus on preventing malignant cells from chasing and attaching to healthy ones.

Mayor said most cancer deaths occur after secondary tumours are formed in the body.