In a new study, researchers have revealed that the zika virus can wreak havoc on the brain of a developing fetus. But, at the same time its destructive power may also be harnessed to fight a stubborn form of adult brain cancer.
Researchers claim that early studies have shown that the mosquito-borne virus can destroy cells responsible for Glioblastoma, which is the most common form of brain cancer.
Every year, nearly 12,000 people are affected by Glioblastoma in the United States. Recently, US Senator John McCain was also diagnosed with the disease.
The doctors say that the standard treatment for Glioblastoma is chemotherapy and radiation. But most patients die within two years. "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," Milan Chheda from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis said in a report published in The Journal of Experimental Medicine. "We wondered whether nature could provide a weapon to target the cells most likely responsible for this return."
The latest experiments show that the secret to Zika's apparent success is that the virus specifically aims at brain cancer stem cells, the ones that tend to survive chemotherapy and spread.
Zika was first identified in Uganda in 1947. It can be passed from a pregnant woman to her unborn baby. Zika virus can cause birth defects and can also result in microcephaly in which the baby's head is smaller than expected.
Zika tends to attack neuroprogenitor cells, which are common in fetuses but rare in adults. "We showed that Zika virus can kill the kind of glioblastoma cells that tend to be resistant to current treatments and lead to death," study co-author Michael Diamond, professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis said.
The report said that the researchers injected either Zika virus or a saltwater placebo directly into the brain tumors of 33 mice. Two weeks later, it was observed that the "tumors were significantly smaller in the Zika-treated mice". The report added that the mice also survived "significantly longer than the ones given saltwater."
However, the researchers have said that some more work is needed before the treatment can be safely attempted in humans.
According to the report, the virus would likely be injected directly into the brain during surgery to remove the primary tumor.
Several other studies on the effect of Zika on the brain tissue of epilepsy patients showed that the virus did not infect non-cancerous brain cells. "We see Zika one day being used in combination with current therapies to eradicate the whole tumor," Chheda added.