Ironic Medicine: Zika Virus Shows Promise as Brain Cancer Medicine

Zika has made its way to the spotlights of the world for the worst reasons. The virus—transmitted through mosquito bites—is strongly associated with fetal malformations and causes flu-like symptoms in adults. The 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil raised widespread concerns about a potential Zika pandemic, compelling authorities and researchers worldwide to invest more resources in prevention and treatment. Now, in a surprising turn of events, the dreaded virus has been successfully used to kill cancerous brain cells. One of the most feared threats to public health in 2016 could become a powerful ally in the treatment of one of the most deadly brain cancers – glioblastomas.

Turning a known lethal agent into a therapeutic tool is far from being a novelty in medicine. Since the first ventures into medicine, some medications have been ironically reliant on highly toxic and dangerous substances owing to their capability to fight maladies of various kinds. The recent discovery of Zika’s anti-cancer properties was made by scientists at Washington University School of Medicine. In experiments conducted with mice and human brain cells, Zika managed to destroy brain cancer stem cells without harming the healthy brain cells.

Eighteen mice with brain tumors were treated with Zika virus injections. Compared to a control group (placebo), the animals treated with Zika displayed remarkable brain tumor reduction and significantly improved lifespan compared to the untreated specimens.

Glioblastoma stem cells are what make glioblastomas nearly impossible to treat with conventional methods such as surgery or chemotherapy. Glioblastoma stem cells can survive these treatments, continuing to multiply and causing further damage. Consequently, survival rates for this type of brain cancer are extremely low. The reason for the efficacy of Zika against glioblastoma stem cells is the similarity between these cells and neuroprogenitor cells. Zika is notorious for destroying neuroprogenitor cells, hence, causing severe brain malformation in fetuses. In other words, what makes Zika destructive to the brains of newborns is what makes it therapeutic against glioblastoma in adult brains. Given that the adult brain features a very low amount of neuroprogenitor cells, direct Zika virus injections in the brain could clear away the cancerous stem cells while leaving other brain cells practically intact. Combined with conventional treatments, Zika injections could help to effectively treat glioblastomas and dramatically improve survival rates.

Promising as it sounds though, playing with Zika is still like playing with fire. Scientists need to study how the immune system deals exactly with the virulent infection in the brain before this solution can be approved for clinical use. Furthermore, the therapeutic versatility of Zika could be tweaked with artificial mutations of the virus.