Researchers at Toronto’s University Health Network have used an experimental drug to disable a gene that regulates these stem cells, which are thought to initiate the development of colon cancer, one of the top-three cancer killers of Canadians.

That gene — known as BMI-1 — has been implicated in maintaining stem cells in other cancers, and is the key regulator of colon cancer stem cells that propels their self-renewal and proliferation.

Stem cells are the blueprints of the body, which give rise to different types of cells that make up tissues, from red and while blood cells to neurons in the brain and insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.

Cancer stem cells, including those identified in the brain, breast and colon, give rise to tissue-specific cancer cells that grow out of control and form tumours.