If you’ve spent any time in North or South America lately, or simply read the news, it’s hard to have missed reports on outbreaks of the Zika virus, which causes flu-like symptoms, but can also lead to serious birth defects in children born to infected mothers. However, new researchshows the virus has a silver lining: it may be useful in treating aggressive and difficult-to-reach brain cancer tumors called glioblastomas.
In a new study published online in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, scientists successfully used the Zika virus to infect and kill cancerous brain tumors in adult mice, and hope to use the same treatment on humans with these tumors, though that’s a ways off, The BBC reported. Research on human brain tissue samples showed that the virus was able to kill certain cells that traditional brain cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery, struggle to reach. Human trials are expected within 18 months.
The Zika virus affects brain stem cells in particular, which are involved with creating new cells, the study notes. This may explain why the infection is so destructive for growing fetuses, as they have high numbers of stem cells in their developing brains. Researchers believe that the Zika virus won’t damage the adult human brain because it has very few stem cells. Past case studies have also shown that Zika has fewer effects on the adult brain than on fetuses’ brains.
Cell reproduction in glioblastomas, the most common type of brain tumor, is detrimental because it can cause the tumor to grow even after intense treatment. By targeting only the cells involved with reproduction, the Zika virus could potentially treat these tumors and leave other important brain cells untouched.
“It looks like there’s a silver lining to Zika. This virus that targets cells that are very important for brain growth in babies, we could use that now to target growing tumors,” explained study researcher Michael Diamond, The BBC reported.
In addition to being the most common type of brain tumor, glioblastomas are also one of the most difficult to treat, and therefore, very deadly. According to The American Brain Tumor Association, these types of tumors can grow rapidly as they are usually nourished with a good blood supply, and easily invade other parts of the brain. Their exact cause is not known.
Of course, there’s still some risk in using a virus as a treatment, but researchers are addressing this problem by working to genetically alter Zika in order to make it less harmful than its natural form.