The study, led by Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), discovered how many stem cells exist within the human bowel and how they behave and evolve over time.
It was found that within a healthy bowel, stem cells are in constant competition with each other for survival and only a certain number of stem cells can exist within one area at a time (referred to as the 'stem cell niche').
However, when investigating stem cells in early tumours, the researchers saw increased numbers of stem cells within each area as well as intensified competition for survival, suggesting a link between stem cell activity and bowel cancer development.
The study involved studying stem cells directly within the human body using a specially developed 'toolkit'.
The toolkit worked by measuring random mutations that naturally accrue in ageing stem cells. The random mutations recorded how the stem cells had behaved, similarly to how the rings on a tree trunk record how a tree grew over time.
The techniques used were unique in that scientists were able to study the human stem cells within their natural environment, giving a much more accurate picture of their behaviour.
Until this research, the stem cell biology of the human bowel has remained largely a mystery. This is because most stem cell research is carried out in mice, and it was uncertain how research findings in mice could be applied to humans, researchers said.
They found the stem cell biology of human bowels have significant similarities to mice bowels.
This means researchers can continue investigating stem cell activity within mice with the knowledge it is representative of humans - speeding up bowel cancer research.
These new research methods can also now be applied to investigate stem cells in other parts of the human body such as skin, prostate, lung and breast, with the aim of accelerating cancer research in these areas too.
The study was published in the journal Cell Reports.