Zika virus could help fight brain cancer

Top News | 8 Sep 2017

Scientists in the United States have found a good side to the Zika virus - it may be a treatment for brain cancer.

Zika virus infection is a mosquito- borne disease that causes damage to the brains of developing fetuses. Symptoms include skin rash, fever, conjunctivitis, muscle or joint pain and general malaise.

Research from Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis and the University of California San Diego School of Medicine shows that the virus kills brain cancer stem cells.

The findings suggest the lethal power of the virus - known for infecting and killing cells in the brains of fetuses, causing babies to be born with tiny, misshapen heads - could be directed at malignant cells in the brain.

It could improve people's chances against a brain cancer - glioblastoma - that is most often fatal within a year of diagnosis.

"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, professor of medicine at Washington and the study's co-senior author.

The findings were published in The Journal of Experimental Medicine.

Each year in the United States, about 12,000 people are diagnosed with glioblastoma, the most common form of brain cancer. Among them is Senator John McCain, who announced his diagnosis in July.

The standard treatment is aggressive surgery, followed by chemotherapy and radiation - yet most tumors recur within six months. A small group of cells, known as glioblastoma stem cells, often survives and continues to divide, producing new tumor cells to replace the ones killed by the cancer drugs.

Glioblastoma stem cells reminded researcher Zhe Zhu of neuroprogenitor cells, which generate cells for the growing brain. Zika virus specifically targets and kills neuroprogenitor cells.

Zhu tested whether the virus could kill stem cells in glioblastomas removed from patients at diagnosis.

The findings suggest that Zika infection and chemotherapy-radiation treatment have complementary effects.

The standard treatment kills the bulk of the tumor cells but often leaves the stem cells intact to regenerate the tumor. Zika virus attacks the stem cells but bypasses the greater part of the tumor.

Tests on mice showed tumors were smaller and they survived longer. If Zika was used in people, it would have to be injected into the brain when the tumor was removed.

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