A common antifungal drug can slow tumors growing in mice and should be investigated as a potentially cheap and easy way to fight cancer in people, researchers reported on Monday.

Although it did not completely wipe out the tumors, the drug called itraconazole may boost the effects of other drugs, the researchers reported in the journal Cancer Cell.

Itraconazole is marketed under the brand name Sporanox by Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceutica, mostly for treating a fungal infection called aspergillus.

The drug affects a so-called cascade of effects through a molecular pathway called Hedgehog, the researchers reported.

The researchers at Stanford University in California were looking for potential cancer drugs. They know that the Hedgehog pathway is involved in the development of cancer, so they looked for drugs that interfere with it.

"There is a fairly broad range of tumors in which this molecular cascade, called the Hedgehog pathway, plays an important role," Stanford's Philip Beachy, who worked on the study, said in a statement.

"The virtue of screening existing drugs is that you already have all the information about dosage and toxicity, and you can move into clinical trials fairly readily.

"The researchers looked at 2,400 different drugs in a so-called library of drugs that had either been tested in people or already approved by the Food and Drug Administration, looking at the mechanism of action. The least toxic one they found was itraconazole.

"Itraconazole has been studied for nearly 25 years, and we therefore have a good understanding of its safety and potential side effects," the researchers wrote.

They tested mice and found an oral solution of itraconazole significantly slowed the growth of tumors injected under the skin. Untreated mice grew giant tumors during the same time and were euthanized.

Testing mice this way is far different from the natural development of cancer in people, but the drug should be tested in cancer patients, the researchers said.

"It might be possible with two compounds to achieve a more potent block at even lower drug concentrations," said Beachy. "If so, it's possible that there is a population of patients that can be treated relatively soon."