The Zika virus is going to be tested to see if it can be used to fight brain tumors. This unusual turn of events will see researchers investigate whether or not the virus that has caused an epidemic in South America can hunt down and kill cancer cells.
The study, which will be funded by Cancer Research UK, will look into how the virus crosses the blood-brain barrier. It is hoped that because Zika normally attacks the developing brain cells of fetuses, it may also home in on the developing cancer cells in the brain. The initial studies will be conducted on cells in a dish, before moving onto models in mice.
“Zika virus infection in babies and children is a major global health concern, and the focus has been to discover more about the virus to find new possible treatments,” explains the University of Cambridge’s Dr Harry Bulstrode, in a statement. “We’re taking a different approach, and want to use these new insights to see if the virus can be unleashed against one of the hardest to treat cancers.”
While the Zika virus had been known about for almost seventy years, and a few outbreaks had been reported in the past, it was not until it became a serious epidemic in Brazil in July 2015 that it became headline news. Pregnant mothers were deemed most at risk, as the virus can cause neurodevelopment problems with unborn babies, and resulted in scores of children being born with microcephaly across South America.
Yet while the impact on fetuses can be significant and damaging, the researchers note that the symptoms of Zika in adults is actually relatively minimal. It is under these conditions that they want to see whether the virus’s ability to cross the blood-brain barrier and seek out developing cells could be harnessed to tackle one of the most common brain tumors found in adults, glioblastomas.
Glioblastomas are aggressive tumors and have a pitifully low survival rate. It is thought that only 10 percent of people diagnosed with this form of cancer will live beyond five years. For this reason, there has been much work investigating how we can better treat the disease, in the hope that doctors are able to pull that figure up.
The researchers hope to be able to show that the Zika virus can indeed slow down the growth of glioblastoma cells in the lab, and learn how it manages to cross the blood-brain barrier and target the cancerous cells. This could then allow them to develop more effective treatments.