The chemicals are called circular RNAs, and when they stick to DNA strands in great enough numbers they can cause tumors known as oncogenes.
The breakthrough offers hope of developing personalized vaccines for vulnerable patients.
"Environmental and genetic factors have long been believed as the major contributors to cancer," explains lead author Professor Simon Conn, of Flinders University in Australia. "We call this revolutionary finding 'ER3D' —from endogenous RNA-directed DNA damage'. It ushers in an entirely new area of medical and molecular biology research.
"[It] opens the door for using these molecules as markers of disease at a very early stage, where the likelihood of curing cancers is much higher."