JAKARTA, NETRALNEWS.COM - Zika virus can be a serious threat to health, especially for unborn children. However, current researchers find that the virus can help destroy brain cancer cells.
A new study shows that the same properties that make Zika a virus harmful to the fetus can be useful in treating brain cancer in adults. The study was conducted in the laboratory and involved animal studies. Even so, there is still much research required before it can be tested in humans.
It is thought that the Zika virus naturally targets and kills brain stem cells, which are abundant in the fetal brain during development. As a consequence, women infected with the Zika virus during pregnancy are at high risk of giving birth to children with neurological problems. But adults have fewer active stem cells in their brains, and consequently, the Zika effect on adult brains is usually much more severe, say researchers.
Moreover, the growth of certain brain cancers - including the often deadly glioblastoma - can be driven by cancer cell stem cells that divide and cause other tumor cells. These glioblastoma stem cells are usually resistant to therapies such as chemotherapy and radiation, and may lead to the return of cancer after treatment. The researchers hypothesized that the Zika virus could target these cancer stem cells.
"We wonder if nature can provide weapons to target the cells most likely to be responsible, for the return of glioblastoma after treatment," said study co-author Milan Chheda of the Washington University School of Medicine at St. Louis, as quoted from the Live Science page, Wednesday (6/9/2017).
The researchers found that the Zika virus specifically targets and kills human glioblastoma stem cells in lab dishes, without much effect on normal adult brain cells.
Furthermore, the researchers tested Zika therapy in mice with glioblastoma. To do this, they injected Zika virus strains tailored to mice into glioblastoma tumors. To note, Zika virus strains that infect humans do not infect mice.
Researchers found that mice treated with Zika showed a slower tumor growth and lived longer than those who did not receive Zika treatment. All untreated mice died after about a month, but nearly half of the treated mice were alive after two months, the researchers said.
There is still much research needed to show that this therapy is safe and effective in humans. The researchers plan to modify the genetic Zika virus so that it is weaker and is not expected to cause disease. Initial tests of "attenuated" Zika strains indicate that the virus is still capable of targeting and killing glioblastoma stem cells in the laboratory.
"Our study is the first step towards the development of a safe and effective Zika virus strain that can be an important tool in neuro-oncology and glioblastoma treatment," says co-author Michael Diamond, also from Washington University.
But concerns about the safety of Zika-based therapy need to be addressed by further studies in animals before therapy is tested in humans, Diamond said. Ultimately, Zika therapy can be used in conjunction with other traditional brain cancer therapies to treat glioblastoma, the researchers said.
The new study was published Tuesday (5/9/2017) in The Journal of Experimental Medicine.
Zika is not the only virus that is considered a potential treatment for glioblastomas. Other research groups examined measles, polio and herpes viruses as a possible way to target glioblastoma.