The basal cell carcinoma form of skin cancer affects 60,000 a year
A single gene may play a major role in nearly all cases of one of the most common human cancers, a study says.
A team from Barts and the London Queen Mary's School of Medicine in London used gene chip array technology to identify the key skin cancer gene.
The technology allows scientists to look at thousands of genes at once, helping to pinpoint the role played by individual ones in much greater detail.
Experts said the technique may lead to similar discoveries for other cancers.
Dr Mark Matfield, scientific consultant for the Association for International Cancer Research, which helped to fund the study, said: "There are over 200 different types of cancer and each one is caused by a handful of key genetic changes.
WHAT IS THE TECHOLOGY?
Gene chip array technology allows thousands of genes to be placed on a specialised slide
The genes are then analysed under a microscope to identify the role they play
It has allowed scientists to pick up even the smallest differences between cells that previously were hard to identify
"This new gene testing technology means we will be able to identify them all and that means we can soon start developing treatments aimed at the actual cause of the cancers."
He said he expected the breakthrough by the Barts and the London team to be followed by "similar discoveries on many different types of cancer".
The researchers used the gene chip array technology, which employs a microscope to analyse a specialised slide capable of containing thousands of genes, to identify the key role played by a gene called patched.
The technique is also being used to study tumours of the breast, bladder and prostate and conditions as diverse as HIV and Crohn's disease.
They found that 70% of basal cell carcinoma tumours - a type of skin cancer - had mutations in the patched gene, leading them to conclude it was probably the "first hit" in most cases.
Basal cell carcinoma is a form of non-melanoma skin cancer, one of the most common forms of cancer with more than 60,000 diagnoses a year, although it is often treatable and is responsible for about 500 deaths a year.
Lead researcher Professor David Kelsell said the new gene chip array was a "vast improvement on previous technologies, which could not pick up certain differences".
"By comparing a cancer patient's tumour cells with their healthy cells, we were able to see all of the genetic events that played a part on the development of disease in that individual."
Professor John Toy, medical director of Cancer Research UK, said: "The interesting thing about this research is that it suggests a single gene plays an integral role in nearly all cases of basal cell carcinoma.
"Unravelling how mutations in patched play a role in causing this common cancer will provide yet further insights into how cancers arise."