The researchers discovered that by adding a protein, E-cadherin, to prostate cancer cells, they could help keep the cancer from moving to other tissues and organs.
"When the cells lack the E-cadherin protein, they tend to not stick together. They are more able to leave the original site and spread throughout the body," said David Lubaroff, a urology professor who helped with the study.
The study, which will be published in the journal Cancer Research, also found the protein suppresses the production of an enzyme that eats away at good tissue.
Fewer than 1 percent of prostate cancer cells will spread, but those that do are usually fatal, said Mary Hendrix, deputy director of the University of Iowa Cancer Center.
The protein acts like glue to bond the cells together. It is usually present in healthy cells, and cancerous cells tend to have a lower amount of it.
About 179,300 men nationwide and 2,100 in Iowa will be diagnosed with prostate cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society. In 1998, the disease killed about 500 men in Iowa and 37,000 across the country.
The E-cadherin protein has been tested only in laboratory rats. So far, 60 percent to 70 percent of the prostate cancer cells have responded when the protein is introduced, Hendrix said.
The next step is to make the process more efficient.
Researchers plan to attach the protein to a virus and inject the virus into animals. Although the process looks promising, it could be years before it can be tested on people.
"If experiments continue to be successful, it could be anywhere from two to five years before it's tried in prostate cancer patients," Lubaroff said.