Scientists looking to weaponize the Zika virus against brain cancer

The mosquito-borne Zika virus has been feared because of the damage it can do to the brains of developing fetuses, but a new study published this week in the Journal of Experimental Medicine has discovered that the pathogen could actually be used to treat brain cancer in adults.

According to BBC News, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic and the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have found that injecting the Zika virus into adult mice suffering from a form of brain cancer caused tumors to shrink without damaging other cells.

As the study authors explained to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Zika is harmful to unborn children because it targets stem cells in their still-developing brains. However, adult brains have far fewer stem cells, and they can be resistant to chemotherapy in patients suffering from a specific type of aggressive brain cancer known as glioblastoma.

Glioblastoma is the most common form of brain cancer, the researchers noted in a statement. In the US, roughly 12,000 people are diagnosed with the disease each year. In most cases, it proves fatal within one year of diagnosis, as affected stem cells often prove resistant to traditional forms of treatment (including chemotherapy), leading to a recurrence within six months.

“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, a professor of medicine at Washington University and co-senior author of the new study. The breakthrough could one day provide a new treatment option for those suffering from the disease.

Safer, less potent version currently be testing in the lab

Dr. Diamond and his colleagues decided to test whether or not Zika’s tendency to attack stem cells in unborn babies could be weaponized against glioblastoma, testing its effectiveness in both living mice and in donated samples of human brain tissue, according to BBC News reports.

The infected tumors with one of two strains of Zika, and found that the virus spread through the tumor and killed cancer-infected stem cells while avoiding other cells, suggesting that Zika could be used to complement chemotherapy and other treatments. Furthermore, they reported that mice with brain tumors who were injected with Zika virus experienced significant shrinkage of tumors in just two weeks and survived longer than those injected with a saltwater placebo.

As Live Science noted, the use of Zika to treat brain tumors in humans remains a long way off, as additional research is needed to prove that it can be both safe and effective. The research team is working to genetically modify the virus to make it weaker and less likely to cause disease, the website noted, and early experiments show that this mutated strain can still effectively target and eliminate glioblastoma-infected stem cells in vitro, although it was said to be less potent.

“We’re going to introduce additional mutations to sensitize the virus even more to the innate immune response and prevent the infection from spreading,” said Dr. Diamond, who is also a professor of pathology and immunology. “Once we add a few more changes, I think it’s going to be impossible for the virus to overcome them and cause disease.”


Image credit: (Jeffrey Arguedas/EFE/Zuma Press/TNS)