Researchers at Duke University have devised a method of flushing breast cancer cells out of bone marrow in mice, making them easier to eradicate.

Previous research suggests bone marrow may offer a haven from chemotherapy, meaning breast cancer cells can lie dormant for an extended period. Up to now, little has been known about how metastatic breast cancer cells enter and hide in bones.

Using real-time microscopy techniques, the Duke University team tracked the migration of breast cancer cells through the bone marrow of mice and identified E-selectin, the protein that allows cancer cells to enter the bone marrow, and CXCR4, the protein that anchors them to the bone and allows the malignant cells to hide.

Dorothy Sipkins, an associate professor at Duke, said: “Studies have found that breast cancer can be caught early and treated, and patients can have no signs of disease. Then five, 10 or even 15 years later, a patient can relapse.

“We also identified an important mechanism that allows breast cancer cells to remain anchored in the bone marrow.

“In the mouse, our findings could offer new strategies to intervene at the molecular level before dormant cells can take hold and cause relapse.”

The research was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, and has prompted hopes that one of the most devastating characteristics of breast cancer can be prevented.