Cancer breakthroughs: Zika virus as treatment for brain cancer?

The Zika virus disease is a highly contagious ailment that has been reported in 125 cases in the United States, and 502 cases in US territories. This figure does not include the global outbreak that has seen an increase in cases all over the world, and focuses on the United States and its territories alone. Here’s everything you need to know about the disease, and how scientists are harnessing it to potentially treat cancer.

Definition

According to WebMD, “The Zika virus, first identified in Uganda in 1947, is transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes, the same type of mosquito that carries dengue fever, yellow fever, and chikungunya virus.” It can also spread from person-to-person, as the virus is transmittable through saliva, tear ducts, urine, semen, and through sexual intercourse. It also has potent effects on pregnant women, as exposure to the Zika virus during pregnancy is associated with a number of birth defects. These birth defects include congenital brain abnormalities such as microcephaly. The World Health Organization adds that “Zika virus is a trigger of Guillain-Barré syndrome. Intense efforts are continuing to investigate the link between Zika virus and a range of neurological disorders, within a rigorous research framework.”

Despite these dire pronouncements, the Zika virus currently has no treatment or vaccine. It manifests in flu-like symptoms that run its course in a week or two. It is being treated by health care professionals with over-the-counter pain relief and medication.

The cancer connection

Now, you may be wondering what a flu-like disease has to do with cancer treatment. One of the evident side effects of the Zika virus is that causes microcephaly in developing fetuses. Microcephaly is when a baby is born with a small head and an underdeveloped brain. In essence, Zika attacks the developing brain stem of the fetuses. However, it leaves fully developed brains intact.

This shows that the virus can breach the blood brain barrier, as it has to do so before it can attack the brain stem. This is best explained by Newsweek as it published, “The blood brain barrier is important when it comes to treating neurological diseases like brain tumors. It is a highly selective membrane barrier that separates the blood circulating the body to prevent any potentially toxic substances from entering the brain. This barrier is so effective, however, it often prevents drugs from being delivered to diseased parts of the brain.”

Scientists are now exploring the properties of Zika that enable it to breach the blood brain barrier. They are testing it against glioblastoma, the most common form of brain cancer. Since glioblastoma cells appear to be similar to the cells of developing brains, then the researchers are hoping to harness Zika’s behavior of attacking developing brains to in effect attack the cancerous cells.

The researchers are exploring this connection by injecting mice with glioblastoma cells and Zika viruses, as well as studying how the virus interacts with the cancer in petri dishes. If successful, then the scientists can pave the way for cancer treatment, particularly in terms of setting the foundation for an effective brain cancer treatment that actually reaches the diseased parts of the brain.