Scientists can spend years in the laboratory searching for a medical breakthrough, only to find that the answer was right under their nose.

Perhaps the most famous serendipitous medical discovery was made by Alexander Fleming, who noticed that bacteria colonies in a petri dish did not grow where a blob of mold was present. His observation led to the development of penicillin, the world’s first true antibiotic.

Having solved the problem of treating harmful bacteria, medical researchers today are focused on finding cures to rare diseases such as cancer. And while novel treatments such as genetically modified white blood cells hold promise, a more recent discovery suggests that the next cancer breakthrough may come not from exotic research, but from a common household product: vinegar.

The Effect of Acetic Acid on Cancer

According to Japanese researchers, acetic acid—the main active ingredient in vinegar—is a powerful anti-cancer agent. Their findings were published in the December 2014 issues of the Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

Susumu Okabe and colleagues tested several concentrations of acetic acid on cultures of gastric cancer and mesothelioma cells lines. Gastric cancer is better-known as stomach cancer, while mesothelioma is a type of cancer caused by asbestos exposure that affects the lining of the lungs, heart, and abdomen.

Acetic acid at 0.5% was found to induce gastric cancer cell death by 80%. The same concentration of acetic acid was even more effective against mesothelioma, inducing almost complete cell death. Also encouraging was the observation that cancer cells were found to be more sensitive to the acetic acid than normal cells, which were used as a control in the experiment.

The researchers remark that it remains unknown why the cancer cells were more sensitive to acetic acid than the normal cells. They’re also uncertain about how, exactly, acetic acid induces cancer cell death. Both subjects, they say, need to be investigated in further studies.

Implications for Mesothelioma Patients

Okabe writes that acetic acid, alone or together with chemotherapy, may be a feasible approach for the treatment of gastric cancer, peritoneal cancer, and mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma tumors grow in the mesothelial cells which line several body cavities. Malignant pleural mesothelioma—or mesothelioma of the pleura—is the most common form of the disease. All forms are associated with asbestos exposure.

When asbestos is inhaled or ingested and become lodged in lung or abdominal tissue, the body has a difficult time expelling the sharp, jagged mineral fibers. Over time, the carcinogenic fibers can cause tumors to grow. These cancerous changes typically occur 15 to 60 years after initial exposure to asbestos.

Because mesothelioma tumors spread rapidly and are resistant to chemotherapy, patients typically have a low median survival time. New treatment strategies are therefore critical to improving outcomes.

Targeted cancer therapies and genetically modified T cells hold great promise. Along with chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery, these therapies form the “five pillars” of cancer treatment.

It is still premature to call acetic acid the “sixth pillar” of cancer treatment. More experiments will have to be done before it is even deemed appropriate for human testing. And there certainly is no evidence to suggest that consuming vinegar helps to fight cancer; in the experiment, vinegar was applied directly to cancer cells.

But any strategy that can help to combat mesothelioma and other cancers, no matter how sophisticated or how simple, is a welcome one. With Alexander Fleming and his landmark antibiotic discovery in mind, there is hope that medical discovery past will serve as prologue.

Joseph W. Belluck is a founding partner of Belluck & Fox, a New York mesothelioma law firm that specializes in asbestos and mesothelioma cases. Joe has dedicated his legal career to helping injury victims and has gathered his experiences into a book called A Patient’s Guide to Mesothelioma that answers common questions and concerns about asbestos-related diseases.