Researchers at Dalhousie University are looking at whether common, inexpensive drugs for acid reflux can help the body’s immune system fight against cancer.

As many as 200,000 Canadians will develop some form of cancer this year. Millions of dollars are spent on researching new forms of treatment -- but the three doctors working in a Halifax lab are trying to see whether a low-cost, low-risk medication already exists.

In particular, they’re researching the effects of ranitidine and famotidine, which are sold in pharmacies under the brand names of Zantac and Pepcid AC, among others.

"These compounds are actually over-the-counter, they're readily available, many people take these medicines freely and we know that there's very minimal side-effects to them," said Dr. Paola Marignani, a professor in the university’s department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Marignani is working alongside Dr. Jean Marshall, a professor in the department of Microbiology and Immunology and the study’s principal investigator, and Dr. Lisa Barrett, a viral immunologist and assistant professor in the division of Infectious Diseases.

They want to know whether the drugs actually change the balance of the immune system so it can better slow the spread and growth of cancerous tumours. They’re currently testing the drugs on mice.

“For example, in a model of early breast cancer development, we saw about a half-ing in the number of tumours that the mice developed,” she said.

The Canadian Cancer Society is now involved in the project, hoping to see if the drugs could one day be viable in treating cancer in humans.

“It’s very non-toxic, has almost no side-effects, so even if it’s used, it ends up being used just in addition to current treatments,” said Marshall. “It might have a beneficial effect and that’s really important for us.”

With a report by CTV’s Todd Battis in Halifax