Results of this research could prove decisive in combating the abnormal proliferation of white blood cells that characterise the disease and might also lead to new treatments for other types of cancers.
More than 20 million people suffer from leukaemia globally and it is the most common malignancy in children under the age of 15 years, representing about a third of all new cases. Some 480-500 children under 15 are diagnosed in the UK each year, and about 100 die of it.
Four out of five cases of leukaemia in children are of acute lymphoblastic (or lymphoid) leukaemia (ALL), and the remainder are almost all acute myeloid leukaemia (AM). Leukaemia is about 10 per cent more common in boys than girls.
The study, which was carried out at the University of Hong Kong revealed that white blood cells began dividing abnormally when TAX - a protein, bound itself to another newly discovered protein TAX1BP2.
Researchers observed this new combination resulted in abnormal cell division, triggering off a chain of events that result in the formation of cancerous cells.
"When they merge, the function of TAX1BP2 is disrupted, leading to the generation of abnormal numbers of chromosomes in daughter cells and is therefore thought to be a driving force in the development of cancer," said Wilson Ching, assistant professor of the University of Hong Kong's departments of pathology and biochemistry.
Leukaemia affects white blood cells, which are part of the body's defence, against infection.
Depending on what type of white blood cell is affected, acute leukaemia is called either acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) or acute myeloid leukaemia (AML).
Chronic leukaemia is called either chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) or chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML).
Added impetus to this research has been maintained after the researchers think the discovery could apply to other types of virus-linked cancers, such as liver cancer, which is believed to be linked to the hepatitis B virus, and nasopharyngeal cancer, linked to the Epstein-Barr virus.
Leukaemia has also been linked to infection by the Human T-cell leukaemia virus type 1 (HTLV-1), which is contracted through sex, blood transfusions and breastfeeding.
"We're thinking of a way to block or inhibit the binding of TAX to the human protein. If you can block this binding, then, it will stop this foreign protein from causing cancer," Ching said.
The study was published in the journal >Nature Cell Biology on June 11.