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Chances are you’ve used baking soda to cook, freshen up your refrigerator and brighten your smile, but a study published in the journal Cell says this cheap, simple substance may help chemotherapy attack cancer.

Chemotherapy works by destroying actively growing cells, but tumors often cut off the oxygen supply of cells inside of them. This causes the cells to shut down, making it difficult for chemotherapy to work.

Scientists at Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research and Moffitt Cancer Center looked at breast and colon cancers in mice and saw an increase in cell activity after giving the mice water mixed with baking soda, also known as bicarbonate soda. In fact, the entire tumor lit up with activity.

It works like this:

Many cells in solid tumors have their oxygen supply shut off in a process known as hypoxia. This causes the pH levels of the cells to drop and become acidic. When this happens, the cells stop working properly. They stop producing proteins and their metabolism is disrupted, so they become inactive or dormant. If these dormant cells are cancerous and not responsive to treatment, they may reactivate when the original tumor is removed, causing the cancer to grow again.

Since baking soda can neutralize acid, the researchers believe drinking it could reduce a tumor’s acidity and bring dormant cells back to life, making them easier targets for chemotherapy.

Robert Gillies, Ph.D.

Robert Gillies, Ph.D.

The researchers theorize that drinking baking soda reduces the cells’ acidity, making them an easier target for chemotherapy by forcing them to burst into action. This means chemotherapy and immunotherapy may be able to target a larger portion of the tumor, including dormant cells that cause the cancer to return.

Moffitt researcher Dr. Robert Gillies, who co-authored the study, says the mechanism behind the effect was unclear.

The team also discovered that acidity impacts the production of T cells, a type of white blood cell that is crucial to immunotherapies, which uses the body’s immune system to attack the tumor.

Moffitt researchers have looked at the impact of baking soda on immune-targeting cancer therapies in the past and plan to investigate further.