A discovery about the behaviour of cells in the intestine could help efforts to treat bowel cancer, a charity said today.
Cancer Research scientists found that gut stem cells replace themselves in a completely different way from previously-held theories.
It was thought stem cells in the gut replaced each other according to a predetermined, hierarchical system which meant only a handful of stem cells were able to produce the many different types of stem cells in that part of the body.
But new research, published online in Science, showed that in fact there was one overall stem cell population with no hierarchy, with neighbouring cells replacing lost cells in a "one in, one out" process.
Lead researcher Dr Doug Winton likened the original theory to chess, with different pieces having different powers from the queen down to pawns. In contrast, the process identified by the team was more like a game of draughts with equal pieces moving forward and either being successful or not.
Dr Lesley Walker, of Cancer Research UK, said: "This could one day lead to real benefits for patients. Cancer stem cells are more resistant to chemotherapy and radiotherapy than the cells that make up the bulk of a tumour, so understanding more about how they behave could lead to better treatments for bowel cancer."