Researchers at McMaster University have made what they call a "giant leap" in identifying and predicting a deadly cancer.

In a paper published Monday in the scientific journal Cancer Cell, the researchers detail how they can pinpoint a state of blood cells that can turn into acute myeloid leukemia (AML) cancer.

This form of cancer is the most common type of leukemia in adults, affecting about 1,300 Canadians each year. The study shows that AML can be predicted early and accurately.

"We've found that the transition from healthy to cancerous blood stem cells happens in clear, compartmentalized steps, said Mick Bhatia, principal investigator of the study and director of the McMaster Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute.

"We've identified two steps in that staircase." The idea as Bhatia pointed out is "to catch cancer before it's cancer."

Bhatia's team worked with Italian researchers at the University of Bologna who already had eights years of blood samples from patients with myelodysplastic syndromes or MDS, a bone marrow disorder. In about 30 per cent of the cases MDS develops into AML.

Mick Bhatia

McMaster University researcher Mick Bhatia. (McMaster University)

A subsequent study showed that by analyzing gene expression, they were accurate in predicting which patients would develop AML and those who would not.

"You never plan for discovery, it happens by accident," Bhatia remarked.

"This will be part of a new era of genetic-based drug discovery." - Mick Bhatia, principal investigator & Director of McMaster Stem Cell & Cancer Research Institute

"Our next step is to go beyond better predictive measures for the development of a blood cancer, and use this predictive gene expression as a target for drugs to prevent AML from developing altogether," said Bhatia.

"This will be part of a new era of genetic-based drug discovery."

Bhatia and his team hope to partner with a bio-technical or pharmacological company to further their study. "We want to move beyond science to practical use by testing it fast… there is no time to wait," he said.

Their goal is to create a cost-effective way to test and treat as many patients as possible who have the disease.

The research was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute.