Can the Zika virus cure brain cancer?
Researchers at Washington University have announced new research in cooperation with the University of California San Diego that shows the Zika virus might one day be an effective treatment for glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer that is often resistant to standard treatment.
The Zika virus is best known for causing birth defects when the mother or father is infected, with babies born with tiny, misshapen heads. But using the virus to kill glioblastoma cells within a year of diagnosis can improve their chances of survival, according to Washington University’s announcement Tuesday.
Approximately 12,000 people are diagnosed with glioblastoma each year, including U.S. Sen. John McCain earlier this year. Current treatment is surgery, followed by chemotherapy and radiation, but most tumors recur within six months. The glioblastoma stem cells often survive the treatment and produce new tumor cells to replace the ones killed by the treatment.
It’s those cells that Zika can attack, researchers said.
“We showed that Zika virus can kill the kind of glioblastoma cells that tend to be resistant to current treatments and lead to death,” said Dr. Michael S. Diamond, the Herbert S. Gasser professor of medicine at Washington University’s medical school and the study’s co-senior author.
The treatment would take place in addition to the traditional surgery and chemotherapy, with Zika injected into the brain during surgery. The researchers said that Zika’s negative effects are primarily against neuroprogenitor cells – cells that are generally found in the fetal brain, but are rare in adults. That’s why Zika infection causes only mild symptoms in adults, but causes severe brain damage in unborn babies, researchers said. The study showed that the virus does not infect noncancerous brain cells.
Approximately 2,155 pregnant women in the United States were found to have evidence of Zika virus as of Aug. 22, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. Of those, 1,862 pregnancies were completed, 95 with birth defects and eight stillborn. In the U.S. territories, 3,258 pregnant women completed their pregnancies, with 132 born with birth defects and seven stillborn.
So far the research has been limited to human cells in the lab. Researchers hope to begin human trials within 18 months, according to the BBC. Similar studies are underway at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine this month.