UK and Dutch scientists may be narrowing down the hunt for cells that are the primary source of bowel cancer.
The scientists found, when genetic damage was inflicted on stem cells from the intestines of mice, the result was a speedy transformation into fast-growing tumours.
The experts reckon that the discovery, reported in the journal Nature, could make it easier to target and prevent the disease.
Researchers want to know what event causes a normal, healthy bowel cell to turn cancerous and start to form tumours.
To reach the conclusion, researchers at the Beatson Institute in Glasgow, Cardiff University, along with scientists at Hubrecht Institute in the Netherlands, isolated intestinal stem cells in mice, then "knocked out" a specific gene called APC from them.
The APC gene is described as a "tumour suppressor gene" and plays a role in regulating the way a cell divides, reports the BBC.
Within days, the stem cell populations had started to form tumours. When the same technique was applied to non-stem cell "daughter" cells, far fewer tumours were formed.
Professor Hans Clevers, from the Hubrecht Institute, said: "We are very excited by these findings but we need to establish whether the stem cells will behave the same way in human cancers as they do in mice."
Dr Owen Sansom, from the Beatson Institute, added: "We are now looking to understand how we can use these results to seek out and destroy stem cells that are lacking the APC gene."