It can also lead to the development of new forms of treatment that targets stem cells that cause tumours to reappear after cancer therapy.
Three different scientific papers by different researchers were published simultaneously in the journals Nature and Science. All three studies, conducted on mice, present evidence on the existence of cancer stem cells.
"The hypothesis (that cancer stem cells exist) has been around now for some time. Hopefully these three papers now make an end to the discussion," Hugo Snippert from the University Medical Centre Utrecht said in an AFP report.
Some experts believed that tumours comprised of masses of cancer cells that are all the same, but Snippert said the latest papers clearly show a hierarchy of cells in tumours, with different functions - including stem cells that act as cancer cell factories.
Snippert, whose team focused on intestinal cancer, explained that a healthy stem cell mutates to create a "cell of origin" from which a tumour grows. The tumour contains stem cells which then create new cancer cells.
A research team of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre that focused on incurable brain tumours, said they had found a subset of cells that appear to be the source of new tumour growth after chemotherapy.
A separate team in Belgium and the UK found a sub-population of tumour cells with stem-like properties in skin cancer.
"Taken together these reports provide evidence that point towards the existence of cells that may represent cancer stem cells," said a Nature press statement.
Cancer stem cells must now be targeted for drug research.
Source: Sapa, AFP