The team, from eight UK universities and the Institute for Cancer Research, said their work would help doctors “move towards a more personalised diagnosis of leukaemia”.
The breakthrough could lead to potential patients being warned about the risk of progressive Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia (CLL) and boost their chances of survival.
CLL affects the white blood cells and tends to develop slowly over many years, mostly affecting those aged over 60.
It varies in its severity, with some patients developing weight loss and lumps in their necks and armpits, while others show no symptoms.
By studying blood samples of people with CLL, researchers found they often had the same “genetic tendency” to develop progressive forms of the illness.
Haematology consultant Dr David Allsup, who is also a senior lecturer at Hull York Medical School, said: “Not only does the research inform us if patients have the genetic tendency to develop progressive CLL, but it also enables us to determine whether or not a patient’s CLL will require treatment in the future or not.
“That way, we are able to keep a close eye on the patients with a high risk, and have treatment options available as soon as they are required.”
The main treatments for CLL are chemotherapy or radiotherapy to destroy the cancerous cells, targeted cancer drugs to control the growth of cancer, or transplants of stem cells to produce healthy white blood cells.
About 7 out of 10 people survive their leukaemia for 5 years or more after being diagnosed, according to the NHS.
Professor James Allan, from Newcastle University’s Centre for Cancer, said: “Emerging evidence suggests that early treatment for patients at high risk of developing progressive CLL could significantly delay the onset of symptomatic leukaemia and improve survival.
“The results from this collaborative study will help patients and their doctors make important decisions about when to start treatment.”