A NEW study looks into the potential of the Zika virus to target and kill brain cancer cells. The results, so far, are encouraging, but researchers suggest that there is a long way to go until a safe and effective treatment is reached.
Could the Zika virus be used for health? A new study suggests that it could, despite – or rather, because of – its tendency to target and destroy neural progenitor cells, which are brain stem cells that differentiate into neurons and glial cells in the central nervous system.
This is why the babies of mothers infected with Zika during their pregnancy are often born with microcephaly.
However, this might also make the Zika virus a viable “weapon” against glioblastoma stem cells, which are undifferentiated cells that promote the development of glioblastoma, a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer.
The research was co-directed by Drs. Michael Diamond and Milan Chheda, both from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO, alongside Dr. Jeremy Rich, from the University of California School of Medicine in San Diego.
“We knew that [the] Zika virus selectively targeted neuroprogenitor or stem cells in the brain in developing fetuses.
A postdoctoral fellow, Zhe Zhu [first study author], hypothesized that it might be able to infect and kill glioblastoma cells, especially the ones that are hard to eradicate (cancer stem cells),” Dr. Diamond told Medical News Today.
The preliminary findings of the study were published in The Journal of Experimental Medicine.
Zika targets cancer stem cells
Glioblastoma stem cells are particularly resistant, even to aggressive forms of therapy, meaning that tumors typically return and survival rates are poor. These cancerous cells can “trump” the body’s immune system, so neutralizing them would allow for a more effective removal of the original tumour.
To test their hypothesis that the Zika virus could target and kill glioblastoma stem cells, the team first conducted experiments in vitro, using glioblastoma specimens collected from tumours that had been surgically removed.
The experiments showed that the Zika virus targeted and killed glioblastoma stem cells, rather than any other glioblastoma cells, or other types of brain cells.
“We were surprised at how selective [the] Zika virus was in tumor cell killing. It efficiently infected and killed the cancer stem cells but did not infect well the differentiated tumor cells or the neighboring healthy cells” Diamond said.
Following this step, the researchers sought to replicate the results in vivo, using laboratory mice that were injected with a modified strain of the Zika virus. In this case, it was found that the virus decelerated tumor growth, improving the animals’ life expectancy.