Researchers have discovered that the Zika virus – the same virus that causes devastating damage to the brain of a developing fetus and can result in microencephaly – could potentially be employed to fight a form of adult brain cancer that has proven resistant to other forms of treatment.
Scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have carried out early studies suggesting that Zika virus, which is spread by mosquitoes, can destroy the cells responsible for glioblastoma.
Glioblastoma is the most common form of brain cancer and it affects about 12,000 people per year in the United States alone, including U.S. Senator John McCain. Doctors typically treat glioblastoma with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation, but prognoses are grim, with patients lasting about two years after diagnosis on average.
“It is so frustrating to treat a patient as aggressively as we know how, only to see his or her tumor recur a few months later,” said Milan Chheda of Washington University School of Medicine. “We wondered whether nature could provide a weapon to target the cells most likely responsible for this return.”
Zika virus wreaks havoc on fetuses because it destroys stem cells in the brain, leading to the incurable condition known as microencephaly that results in an unusually small head. However, these are also the cells that tend to survive chemotherapy and radiation and cause the cancer to come back again.
“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 Michael Diamond, a professor of medicine who co-authored the study.
While there is much more work to be done before the treatment can be attempted on humans, the likeliest form of administering the Zika virus would be to inject it directly into the brain during surgery.
“We see Zika one day being used in combination with current therapies to eradicate the whole tumor,” said Chheda.