Could Zika virus help us combat brain tumors?

In a new study, researchers will assess whether Zika virus can act against glioblastoma, one of the most difficult tumors to treat, with the hope that findings may lead to new therapeutics.

Approximately 2300 individuals are diagnosed with glioblastoma in England every year and patients typically have low survival rates – less than 5% of patients will survive over 5 years. Current treatments face the challenge of crossing the blood–brain barrier and, as they are not tumor-specific, doses are often limited to avoid harming healthy tissue.

Harry Bulstrode from the University of Cambridge (UK) will be leading the new study, which is funded by Cancer Research UK.  The work will aim to assess how Zika virus targets tumor cells both in vitro and in mouse models, with the hope of developing new tumor-specific treatments.

It has been demonstrated that Zika virus has the ability to cross the blood–brain barrier; in addition, Zika is reported to target stem cells in developing fetal brains, causing adverse effects such as microcephaly. Cancer cells in glioblastoma are known to resemble those of the developing brain, suggesting that Zika might specifically attack these cancer cells.

Bulstrode commented: “Zika virus infection in babies and children is a major global health concern, and the focus has been to discover more about the virus to find new possible treatments. We’re taking a different approach, and want to use these new insights to see if the virus can be unleashed against one of the hardest to treat cancers.

“We hope to show that the Zika virus can slow down brain tumor growth in tests in the lab. If we can learn lessons from Zika’s ability to cross the blood–brain barrier and target brain stem cells selectively, we could be holding the key to future treatments.”

Iain Foulkes, Director of Research and Innovation at Cancer Research UK, concluded: “We urgently need new insights and treatments to tackle glioblastomas, one of the most common and difficult to treat forms of brain tumors.

“Finding new ways to treat brain tumors to help more people survive the disease is a priority for Cancer Research UK. Dr Bulstrode’s research is an incredibly innovative way to expand our understanding of how we can beat this disease, which remains a notorious challenge.”



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