In the future a deadly form of brain cancer, that has a prognosis of less than a year, could be treated by injecting the notorious Zika virus directly into the brain of a patient.
Although this might seem like an alarmingly risky treatment, especially given it irreversibly damages the developing brains of foetuses in the womb, doctors believe that it could hold the key to survival for adults suffering from this deadly disease.
The ‘Brain Tumour Charity’ explains that a grade 4 glioblastoma tumour, which affects approximately 2,200 people in the UK every year, is likely to spread around the body and has close to the worst possible prognosis - six months.
The study from Washington University looked at how the mosquito-borne infection is able to kill off the cells that cause this glioblastoma - the most common high grade primary brain tumour in adults - and resists all current treatments.
The standard treatment requires surgery, then chemotherapy and radiation, yet most tumors recur within six months because a small group of stem cells survive the onslaught.
However when the team looked at how the Zika virus acts and kills developing neuroprogenitor cells in babies, they noticed that the troublesome glioblastoma stem cells are remarkably similar.
So they speculated that the lethal power of Zika could be redirected at the stem cells instead, whilst having no effect on neuroprogenitor cells because they are rare in the brains of fully-grown adults.
The foetal brain, on the other hand, is loaded with such cells, which is part of the reason why Zika infection before birth produces widespread and severe brain damage, while natural infection in adulthood causes mild symptoms.
And they found that when they injected Zika into the brain, it did in fact spread through the tumour and kill the cancer stem cells while largely avoiding other tumor cells suggesting that Zika infection and chemotherapy-radiation treatment have complementary effects.
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.