Study shows Zika virus could treat brain cancer

ST. LOUIS - A breakthrough in the fight against brain cancer. A new discovery shows the Zika virus could potentially be used to treat the deadly disease.

If you could see what Washington University Nero Oncologist Dr. Milan Chheda sees under a microscope, it might look like cancer cells taken from a patient. But Chheda sees hope through the Zika virus.

“What’s caused the major public health epidemic is that it targets in developing fetuses these neuro stem cells,” Dr. Chheda says. “What we’re working on is cancer stem cells, but they share some properties. These cancer stem cells exist in adults with glioblastoma.”

Washington University researchers say that although the Zika virus causes devastating damage to the brains of developing fetuses, it one day may be an effective treatment for glioblastoma.

About 12,000 Americans every year are diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, among them Senator John McCain.

But a major breakthrough using modern medicine and Mother Nature is turning heads. This could potentially could improve people’s chances against a brain cancer that is most often fatal within a year of diagnosis.

The standard treatment is surgery, followed by chemotherapy and radiation. Most tumors recur within six months. A small population of cells, known as glioblastoma stem cells, often survives the onslaught and continues to divide, producing new tumor cells to replace the ones killed by the cancer drugs.

Researchers tested whether the virus could kill stem cells removed from patients at diagnosis. They infected tumors with one of two strains of Zika virus. Both strains spread through the tumors, infecting and killing the cancer stem cells while largely avoiding other tumor cells.

“We see Zika one day being used in combination with current therapies to eradicate the whole tumor,” said Chheda, an assistant professor of medicine and of neurology.

Chheda, a Washington University School of Medicine researcher, is part of a group from UC San Diego, Washington University, and the University of Texas making the breakthrough.

If Zika were used in people, it would have to be injected into the brain, most likely during surgery to remove the primary tumor. If introduced through another part of the body, the person’s immune system would sweep it away before it could reach the brain.

Tuesday’s announcement in the Journal of Experimental Medicine is something the Cancer Support Community of greater St. Louis will keep an eye on.

The findings suggest that Zika infection and chemotherapy-radiation treatment have complementary effects. The standard treatment kills the bulk of the tumor cells but often leaves the stem cells intact to regenerate the tumor. Zika virus attacks the stem cells but bypasses the greater part of the tumor.

“Then we write a list of questions that they can present to their doctors that says, ‘I heard about the study, I want to make sure I’m receiving the most advanced treatments,” says Renata Sledge, Program Director Cancer Support Community of Greater St. Louis. “Or simply, ‘what does this research mean for me now or in the future?'”

“I mean, it’s probably like a year and a half before we can start going into patients.  We have to get FDA approval and make sure things are safe.”