Rare Disease Report

Can the Zika Virus Treat a Rare Brain Cancer?

SEPTEMBER 08, 2017
James Radke
A knife can be both a weapon and a tool; it depends on why you are using it.

The same may also apply to the Zika virus.

The Zika virus can lead to devastating neurological problems in babies born to mothers who came in contact with the mosquito-carrying virus.  

Last year, hundreds of babies were born with microcephaly and other developmental disorders as a result of the Zika virus invading in various tropical regions. The virus has even established roots in places like Miami Beach and southern Texas.

Interestingly, new research indicates that the Zika virus may also be something that can treat a rare condition, rather than create one.

In the Journal of Experimental Medicine, Zhe Zhu et al published their results showing the Zika virus can kill glioblastoma cells in either human or animal tissue samples.

Glioblastomas, the cancer that Senator John McCain was recently diagnosed with, arise from astrocytes (glia cells). This type of cancer is usually very aggressive, as the cells quickly reproduce and are supported by a large network of blood vessels.

The idea of using the Zika virus to treat a cancer was largely based in the finding of what the Zika virus can and cannot do to brain cells in humans. In adults, the virus has little or no effect on brain tissue. In babies in utero, the Zika virus infects neural stem and progenitor cells that eventually lead to microcephaly, thus the researchers wondered if the Zika virus would also be able to infect rapidly growing cancer cells while leaving normal cells intact.

The study found that the Zika virus preferentially infected and killed glioblastoma stem cells while sparing normal neuronal cells. In contrast, West Nile virus was found to kill both tumor and normal neural cells. 

Zhu Z, Gorman MJ, McKenzie LD, et al. Zika virus has oncolytic activity against glioblastoma stem cells.  J Exp Med. Published online September 5, 2017. jem.rupress.org/content/early/2017/09/05/jem.20171093

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