The Zika Virus May Someday Be Used to Treat Incurable Brain Cancer—Here’s How

Zika has caused a lot of grief and concern, but researchers think they may be able to squeeze some good out of this vicious virus.

mosquitoTacio Philip Sansonovski/shutterstockThe Zika virus can have devastating neurological effects on newborns, most notably microcephaly and other brain malformations, which is why it’s so important to know how to avoid Zika virus mosquitoes (here are some other facts about Zika virus you should know). The World Health Organization reports that the first large outbreak of the disease caused by Zika infection was reported from the Island of Yap in 2007, and there are now currently several countries experiencing Zika virus outbreaks. But despite all the negatives attached to the virus, a new study, published in The Journal of Experimental Medicine, has found a significant upside. According to researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, the virus specifically targets and kills brain cancer stem cells. Such findings suggest that the lethal power of the virus could be directed at malignant cells in adult brains.

The researchers are hopeful that the virus could be used to target one of the most common and aggressive forms of brain cancer, glioblastomas. Currently, patients diagnosed with this cancer are given little more than a year to live. To study the potential of Zika, the researchers injected tumors in mice; within a couple of weeks, the tumors and shrunk considerably. “We see Zika one day being used in combination with current therapies to eradicate the whole tumor,” Milan G. Chheda, MD, one of the study authors said in a press release.

For Zika to be used in people, it would likely have to be injected into the brain during the surgery to remove the tumor. If introduced to other parts of the body, the immune system would take care of it before it was able to reach the brain, explain the researchers. And while the idea of injecting such a harmful virus into people’s brains may seem counterintuitive, the researchers believe Zika may be safer for use in adults because—unlike a fetal brain—a mature brain has very few neuroprogenitor cells, which are the primary target of the Zika virus. “Our research shows it also selectively targets and kills cancer stem cells, which tend to be resistant to standard treatments and a big reason why glioblastomas recur after surgery and result in shorter patient survival rates,” said co-senior author of the study Jeremy Rich, MD, professor of medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

The researchers conducted additional studies of the virus using human brain tissue and discovered that the virus doesn’t harm non-cancerous brain cells. The team also introduced two mutations in the virus that eliminated Zika’s ability to overcome natural immune defenses. “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 co-senior author of the study Michael S. Diamond, MD, PhD, professor of molecular microbiology, pathology and immunology in a statement. “Once we add a couple more, I think it’s going to be impossible for the virus to overcome them and cause disease.” (Until then, you shouldn’t ignore these silent brain cancer symptoms.)

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Alexa Erickson
Alexa Erickson is a lifestyle and news writer currently working with Reader's Digest, SHAPE Magazine, and various other publications. She loves writing about science news, health, wellness, food and drink, beauty, fashion, home decor, and her travels. Visit her site Living by Lex.