The illness that can cause brain damage in babies might offer a surprising new treatment option for adult brain cancer.
The Zika virus has always been seen as a dangerous threat, but in a surprising twist of Zika news, researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine and the University of California School of Medicine now believe that the virus could be used as a remedy to kill hard-to-treat cancerous cells in the brain.
Zika is a mosquito-borne virus that's primarily worrisome for pregnant women because of its links to microcephaly, a birth defect that causes a baby's head to be significantly smaller. Adults exposed to the virus may also have cause for concern since it potentially contributes to conditions like long-term memory loss and depression. (Related: The First Case of Local Zika Infection This Year Was Just Reported In Texas)
In both cases, Zika affects stem cells in the brain, which is why scientists believed that the virus could help kill the same stem cells in brain tumors.
"We take a virus, learn how it works and then we leverage it," Michael S. Diamond, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine and the study's co-senior author, said in a news release. "Let's take advantage of what it's good at, use it to eradicate cells we don't want. Take viruses that would normally do some damage and make them do some good."
Using the information they gathered on how Zika operates, the scientists engineered another version of the virus that our immune system could successfully attack, in case it made contact with healthy cells. They then injected this new version into glioblastoma stem cells (the most common form of brain cancer) that had been removed from cancer patients.
The virus was able to kill the cancer stem cells that usually resist other types of treatment, including chemotherapy. It was also tested on mice with brain tumors and managed to shrink the cancerous masses. Not only that, but the mice that received the Zika-inspired treatment lived longer than those treated with a placebo.
While there have been no human clinical trials, this is a giant breakthrough for the 12,000 people who are affected by glioblastoma a year.
The next step is to see if the virus could kill human tumor stem cells in mice. From there, researchers will need to understand Zika better and learn exactly how and why it targets cancer stem cells in the brain and if can be used to treat other forms of aggressive cancers as well.