Scientists have discovered one way that lung cancer spreads: through the breaking of protein ties that keeps cells together.

The images above depict microscopic photos of such protein ties: on the left, they’re normal, and on the right they are severed. The ones on the right are lung cancer cells; because the tie is broken, they’re way more likely to break down and spread throughout the body. The study was published in Cell Reports and conducted by researchers at the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute.

The binding keeping cells together is controlled by a protein called TIAM1. When cell maintenance breaks down, TIAM1 gets impaired and allows cells to fall apart, then spread throughout the body.

“This important research shows for the first time how lung cancer cells sever ties with their neighbors and start to spread around the body, by hijacking the cells’ recycling process and sending it into overdrive,” Dr. Angeliki Malliri, a lead author of the study, said in a press release. “Targeting this flaw could help stop lung cancer from spreading.”

Typically, lung cancer spreads to lymph nodes in the chest, abdomen, neck, or armpit, as well as the liver, bones, or brain, according to Cancer Research UK. Lung cancer is particularly likely to spread through the lymph system because it enters lymph vessels around the bronchi in the lungs and begin forming clusters in lymph nodes, which are groups of immune cells.

According to the National Cancer Institute, 2014 saw over 220,000 new cases of lung cancer in the U.S., and about half this number died from lung cancer. In the UK, there are some 43,500 new cases of lung cancer every year, and it's the most common cause of cancer deaths in the UK. “Lung cancer causes more than one in five of all cancer deaths in the UK and it’s vital that we find effective new treatments to fight the disease and save more lives,” Nell Barrie, Cancer Research UK’s senior science information manager, said in the press release.

The authors of the study hope that their research will be one step forward for those looking to stop lung cancer in its tracks once it’s been detected.

“Early stage research like this is essential to find treatments which could one day block cancer spread — which would be a game changer,” Barrie said in the press release. “It’s also crucial that we find ways to diagnose the disease earlier, when treatment is more likely to be successful and the cancer is less likely to have spread.”

Source: Vaughan L, Tan C, Chapman A, Nonaka D, Mack N, Smith D. “HUWE1 Ubiquitylates and Degrades the RAC Activator TIAM1 Promoting Cell-Cell Adhesion Disassembly, Migration, and Invasion.” Cell Reports, 2014.