While the Zika virus is known to cause birth defects and abnormalities in unborn children, researchers now believe it could be used as an effective way to kill off cancer cells in the brain.
Focusing specifically on glioblastoma, the most common form of brain cancer, researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the University of California, San Diego, tested strains of the Zika virus  on the tumor cells.
“We hypothesized that the preference of Zika virus for neural precursor cells could be leveraged against glioblastoma stem cells,” said study co-director Michael Diamond in a news release.
Most patients with glioblastoma die within two years of diagnosis, with treatment typically involving surgery followed by several aggressive approaches. The aim of treatment is to target glioblastoma stem cells to prevent the tumor from growing back, but not all are responsive to chemotherapy and radiation.
"It is so frustrating to treat a patient as aggressively as we know how, only to see his or her tumor recur a few months later," said Milan Chheda, of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, according to the news release. "We wondered whether nature could provide a weapon to target the cells most likely responsible for this return."
In the latest report, published Sept. 5 in The Journal of Experimental Medicine, researchers found that the virus infected and killed patient-derived glioblastoma stem cells compared to other glioblastoma cell types or normal neural cells. In mice, the virus slowed tumor grown significantly and extended the animals' lifespan.
While testing a mutant strain of the virus, which was tailored to be more sensitive to the body's immune response, it was able to target and kill glioblastoma stem cells more effectively when combined with a chemotherapy drug.
"Our study is a first step toward the development of safe and effective strains of Zika virus that could become important tools in neuro-oncology and the treatment of glioblastoma," Diamond said, according to the news release. "However, public health concerns will need to be addressed through pre-clinical testing and evaluations of the strains' ability to disseminate or revert to more virulent forms."
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