A researcher inspired by a conversation with his young child has discovered a means of eradicating cancer stem cells, using common antibiotics.

Professor Michael P Lisanti, director of Manchester University’s Breakthrough Breast Cancer Unit, was discussing cancer cures with his daughter Camilla, when she asked him why antibiotics aren’t used as they are for other illnesses.

"I knew that antibiotics can affect mitochondria and I’ve been doing a lot of work recently on how important they are to the growth of tumours," Lisanti said, "but this conversation helped me to make a direct link."

Mitochondria are stem cells’ source of energy as they mutate and divide, causing tumours. A side effect of some antibiotics that are used to treat infections, is to affect mitochondria.

Lisanti worked with peers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York and the Kimmel Cancer Centre, Philadelphia. Five types of antibiotics were tested on cell lines of eight different types of tumour. Four of the antibiotics eradicated the cancer stem cells in every test. This included glioblastoma, the most aggressive of brain tumours, as well as lung, prostate, ovarian, breast, pancreatic and skin cancer.

The antibiotics had little or no harmful effect on normal cells. Trials of new treatments using antibiotics should be simpler and faster than with new drugs, because most are already approved for use in humans.