The gene has been found in fruit flies, mice and humans and could act as a 'master switch' for cancer.
The research published in the online journal PLoS Biology suggests the discovery could have huge implications for treating and potentially curing cancers by going to the root of the tumour formation.
The research relates to eye tumours in flies and bowel cancers in mice and humans, but it is hoped another 'master switch' may be present in other cancers.
Scientists looked for the ATOH1 gene in mice and humans and its fruit fly equivalent, Ato, and found both belong to the Atonal group of genes, which are thought to be key differentiation controllers, the process by which cells acquire specialist roles in the body such as a cancer cell.
ATOH1 was found to suppress bowel cancer in both mice and humans, while Ato prevented eye tumours developing in fruit flies.
Switching off the gene triggered the growth of cancers in flies, mice and humans.
Re-activating the gene in laboratory-grown cancer cells caused the tumours to stop dividing and die.
Related article: Protein models could help curtail cancercells
Need to keep ahead of nursing news and clinical developments? Let us help. Get a comprehensive round-up delivered free to your inbox every day. Simply click here, log in and select 'Daily news alert'