Scientists have reported that a type of E. coli gut infection may increase the chance of developing bowel cancer.

A study, published in the Nature journal, found that the common type of gut bacterium is present in up to 1 in 5 people.

Scientists believe that it releases a toxin called colibactin which can damage cells in the bowel lining, potentially causing some cells to become cancerous over time.

Experts suggest more research needs to be done to confirm the link between the toxin and bowel cancer cases. They suspect the minority of bowel cancer cases are linked to the toxin, suggesting it may contribute to 1 in 20 cases.

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in Britain, with 42,000 new cases diagnosed each year

A BBC News report said:

There is no routine test for the bacterium currently, and it is not clear yet that people who have it will be at heightened risk. In some people it may live in the bowel and cause no issue.

Many types of E. coli are part of the normal gut flora - the bacteria that naturally live in the bowel.

The researchers, from The Netherlands, the UK and the US, used miniature replicas of the human gut, grown in the lab, to test the effects of the toxin on cells. They then compared the damage seen with more than 5,000 bowel cancer samples taken from patients and found identical patterns or "fingerprints" of DNA damage in around 5% of the samples.

Experts suggest that the findings from this study will allow for a more sensitive test to detect early bowel tumours.

By detecting the specific DNA damage in the cells lining the gut, one day doctors may be able to identify people at higher risk of the disease. This could be used alongside current bowel cancer screening tests.

This can also lead to bowel cancer prevention by getting removing the bacterium using antibiotics before it does any harm.

Prof Hans Clevers, from the Hubrecht Institute in The Netherlands, said: "Common antibiotics will kill these bacteria.

This is the first time we've seen such a distinctive pattern of DNA damage in bowel cancer, which has been caused by a bacterium that lives in our gut.

Understanding the triggers leading to bowel cancer may help doctors detect and prevent the development of the disease in its early stages which is crucial as treatment is most likely to be successful with early diagnosis.

Find out more about bowel cancer symptoms