Researchers plan to map all the genes in childhood tumours to identify mutations that give rise to the cancers.

St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., and Washington University school of medicine in St. Louis, Mo., announced the project on Monday. A similar international project aims to sequence all the genes in 20 common cancers in adults.

"We are on the threshold of a revolution in our understanding of the origins of cancer," Dr. William Evans, St. Jude director and chief executive officer, said in a statement.

"For the first time in history, we have the tools to identify all of the genetic abnormalities that turn a white blood cell into a leukemia cell or a brain cell into a brain tumour."

Researchers will focus on childhood leukemias, brain tumours and sarcomas — tumours of bone, muscle and other connective tissue.

The study will cost an estimated $65 million US over three years and will start with tissue samples from 600 childhood cancer patients.

St. Jude will provide DNA from tumours and normal tissues of patients and Washington University's genome center will perform the genome sequencing.

Kay Jewelers will provide $20 million US as lead sponsor of this project, which will be based mostly on private donations.