It is hoped the research could bring new treatments
Scientists searching for a cure for colon cancer have pinpointed a gene which is present in cancerous cells but not healthy ones.
Researchers at Edinburgh and Cardiff universities say they have discovered that the gene MBD2 is a vital component of cancerous cells, but is worthless to healthy ones.
They hope that eventually the discovery will lead to more effective treatment of cancer - although this would take many years.
Professor Adrian Bird, of Edinburgh University, called the discovery, which came after five years of studying the gene in mice, "very exciting".
"If you develop anti-MBD2 drugs then one has the possibility that you could attack the cancer cells without attacking things like skin cells and hair cells," he said.
We need to see how an anti-MBD2 drug works when tried in humans before we can know how helpful it is likely to be
"If you can target something cancer cells need but other cells don't, then that's great."
Professor Bird and his colleague, Professor Alan Clarke of Cardiff University, are currently in talks with an unnamed pharmaceuticals company about developing a drug which would attack MBD2 cells.
He warned that, even if it was possible to make the drug, it would be between five and 10 years before it hit the market.
Tracy Williams, senior cancer information nurse at charity Cancer BACUP said: "This looks like a promising development. However, it is important to realise that the work so far has involved mice in the laboratory.
"We need to see how an anti-MBD2 drug works when tried in humans before we can know how helpful it is likely to be"
The findings, which were made by a team of six researchers, are being published in the journal Nature Genetics.
Colon cancer is the second biggest cancer killer in Britain, causing around 16,000 deaths and leading to around 30,000 new diagnoses every year.