The gene in question is E4bp4 and it is shown to cause stem cells in the blood to differentiate into disease fighting NK (natural killer) immune cells. It is hoped that this discovery will lead to new ways to boost the body's production of these frontline cells - potentially creating a new way to kill cancer.
They have managed to create mice that lack the key gene -E4bp4. These animals are normal in every way except they have no NK cells at all. Currently, NK cells isolated from donated blood are sometimes used to treat cancer patients - but the effectiveness of donated cells is limited because NK cells can be slightly different from person to person.
"If increased numbers of the patient's own blood stem cells could be coerced into differentiating into NK cells, via drug treatment, we would be able to bolster the body's cancer-fighting force, without having to deal with the problems of donor incompatibility" (Dr Hugh Brady)