When Viruses are the Cure: Zika Treats Brain Cancer

Brain cancers are often the most aggressive forms of cancer. Tumors of the brain spread quickly and swiftly bring on scary neurological effects in the whole body. Cancer patients with tumors of the brain don’t always face a bright prognosis, but an innovative treatment is changing that.

The Zika epidemic seized the world over the summer, terrifying expectant mothers from South America and as far north as New York in the U.S. While men and women can be affected by Zika, most face only minor symptoms including a slight fever and rash. For pregnant women, however, the Zika virus leaves the fate of their newborn in limbo. Although only 2% of newborns afflicted with the virus showed signs of microcephaly, a condition in which the brain is underdeveloped, it is still not completely clear how the virus affects the brain. Some infants have shown signs of vision loss and delayed development months after birth, despite having no obvious delays early on.

New research is revealing why Zika affects adults differently than children, and also why infants are more affected in-utero than after birth. The dividing factor comes down to stem cells. Babies’ brains are full of them. Their brains are constantly developing and changing. Adult brains? Not so much. Zika seems to target stem cells, which explains why it causes such delays in infants while adults usually experience only mild symptoms. It also explains how researchers are using it to fight cancer.

Aggressive brain tumors such as glioblastomas are often caused by rapidly multiplying cancerous brain stem cells. Doctors have long used viruses to target cancerous cells, but Zika’s affinity for stem cells in particular has proven effective in treating cancerous brain tumors in mice with little damage to healthy cells.

Researchers hope to begin human trials in the next eighteen months after making a few changes to “tame” the virus which can then be injected directly into cancer cells during surgery, helping to remove inoperable roots better than chemo and radiation.