First identified in 1947, the Zika virus didn’t become a household topic until recently. Zika attacks neural precursor cells, or stem cells. Adults don’t tend to have many neural stem cells, because our brains are essentially developed. Babies, however, are still growing. If infected, the virus attacks and kills a baby’s neural stem cells, leaving the child with an underdeveloped and smaller brain, or microcephaly.

Scientists are trying to harness Zika’s preference for stem cells to fight one of the deadliest brain cancers: glioblastoma. Like most other cancers, glioblastoma is caused by tumor-initiating stem cells, or GSCs. While glioblastoma can be treated with surgery and chemotherapy, GSCs are resilient and relapse is common. Researchers collected excised glioblastoma tumors and exposed them to two different Zika strains. Both Zika strains showed a strong preference for killing GSCs, while ignoring tumor cells and non-cancerous brain cells.

To increase the safety of the virus, scientists created a mutant strain that is capable of fighting our immune systems. The mutant strains were killed in healthy cells, but as cancerous cells have a depressed immune response, the virus was still able to attack and eliminate GSCs.

Researchers believe that with Zika treatments, they can definitively eliminate glioblastoma from patients and prevent relapses. Many questions need to be answered before moving forward. First, understanding why Zika has this specific preference for stem cells could lead to enhancing the preference for GSCs and increasing the lethality of their attack. Glioblastoma comprises only 3% of childhood cancers, but only one in four children live five years past diagnosis. Future experiments should explore the possibility of making this Zika treatment safe for children. Hopefully we will see this treatment become a practical and effective solution to one of our most unforgiving cancers.

Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Katherine Rogers for her insights on this article. Katherine works in the Friedrich Miescher Laboratory of the Max Planck Society, focusing on developmental biology.

Managing Correspondent: Zane Wolf

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Original Article: Zika virus has oncolytic activity against glioblastoma stem cells – JEM

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