Vitamin A prompted changes to gullet cells
Scientists believe blocking the action of vitamin A may help prevent a type of cancer of the gullet.
There has been an eight-fold rise in cases of oesophageal adenocarcinoma in the UK in the last 30 years.
Researchers found exposure to vitamin A prompted changes in the cells that line the gullet which can ultimately lead to the cancer.
The study, by the Medical Research Council Cell Unit, is published in the journal Gut.
Any new advance would represent a significant breakthrough against a disease which is particularly difficult to treat.
Oesophageal adenocarcinoma develops from abnormalities in the lining of the oesophagus, a condition called Barrett's oesophagus.
This condition causes the scaly lining of the oesophagus to be replaced by a glandular lining, like that normally found in the stomach or intestine.
Up until now the nature and origin of the cell change which causes Barrett's had not been known.
The MRC team found that treating the normal scaly tissue with vitamin A provoked the change to the Barrett's lining tissue.
They also showed that this change occurs below the top layer of cells and is still visible even when that layer is removed.
When the scientists later treated the altered tissue with vitamin A inhibitors, they found the cells reverted back to their previous state.
Lead researcher Dr Rebecca Fitzgerald said: "We are very excited about these findings.
"Vitamin A inhibitors could allow us to reverse Barrett's oesophagus which would prevent the lesions it provokes from causing oesophageal adenocarcinoma.
"Until now it had been thought the changes to the cells in the oesophageal lining was limited to the top layer of those cells, the epithelium.
"This research shows that the change is actually more fundamental.
"This ties in with recent work in many cancer areas which suggests that we have neglected the cell environment for too long in our thinking about cancer."
Dr Julie Sharp, Cancer Research UK's cancer information manager, said: "This research offers further insight into the cell changes that lead to Barrett's oesophagus.
"Around 1 in 100 cases of Barrett's oesophagus develop into cancer.
"In the future these results may help scientists design new strategies for treating this condition to prevent it from developing into oesophageal cancer."
Around 7,500 new cases of oesophagus cancer are diagnosed each year in the UK. Oesophageal adenocarcinoma is one of the most common forms.
The disease is one of the deadliest forms of cancer with an almost 100% mortality rate.