A cheaply-produced molecule may be the key to treating a variety of cancers, claim Canadian researchers.
Breast cancer could be a possible target
Dicholoroacetate (DCA) has been suggested for years as a possible treatment for certain rare metabolic disorders in children.
The University of Alberta team, writing in the journal Cancer Cell, now say it could encourage cancer cells to die.
Experts say much more research will be needed before an effective cancer treatment can emerge.
One of the most important features of many cancers is its ability to cheat the normal process of cell death that happens in normal tissue.
Many scientists are working on ways to find out how it does this, and to switch the mechanism back on.
The latest candidate is DCA, which has been known for years, but with only very limited applications in medicine.
Its ability to affect the mitochondria - units within the cell which normally help convert energy - has led to some doctors trying it to help treat metabolic diseases.
While no conclusive evidence has emerged to support that theory, the Alberta researchers have been looking at the role of mitochondria in the development and survival of tumours.
Dr Evangelos Michelakis, who led the project, said that mitochondria appear to malfunction in cancers, and he believes that DCA can help restore that function - and make it far more difficult for cancer cells to survive.
When the molecule was added to cancer tissue in the laboratory, it suppressed tumour growth - and also showed some signs of working in animals. Healthy tissue showed no ill-effects.
However, no human experiments have been carried out yet.
Dr Michelakis said: "One of the really exciting things about this compound is that it might be able to treat many different forms of cancer, because all forms of cancer suppress mitochondrial function."
He is concerned that, because DCA is a well-known substance - and has no patent - attracting drug company support for human trials might be a problem.
Professor Patrick Chinnery, who carries out research into mitochondria at Newcastle University, said that the research was "novel and interesting".
He said: "For this to work, we have to be sure that the growth of some cancers is due to mitochondria - and I'm not sure that link exists.
"However, these results suggest that more research is merited into this."