All diseases caused by mosquitoes are dangerous.
But what sets the Zika virus apart from the rest of the hoard is the fact that though it rarely causes severe infection in adults, it is extremely dangerous for unborn babies when pregnant women are infected.
But now scientists have found a way to harness this unique property of the virus to fight malignant glioblastoma (the most common form of brain cancer in the world) with a technique called virotherapy.
What is Virotherapy?
Virotherapy, as the name suggests, is a type of treatment for cancer where modified (or unmodified) viruses (now called oncolytic viruses) are used to destroy cancer cells in the human body.
And till date a lot of viruses have been used for this purpose, which includes the USFDA and EMA approved oncolytic herpes virus for treatment of malignant melanoma.
But this is the first time anyone has attempted to use the zika virus for virotherapy.
Glioblastoma and How Zika Virus Can Help Destroy it
Glioblastoma is an aggressive, fast-progressing cancer of the brain and spinal cord that is caused by malignant transformation of astrocytes (star-shaped cells of the central nervous system that holds together all other neural tissues).
That means they are everywhere!
Therefore, when these astrocytes transform into stem-cell-like cancer cells, their strategic advantage allows them to nestle in and resist all forms of treatment, including surgery, chemotherapy, and irradiation.
Maybe that's why this cancer has been the bane of every oncologist's existence...
...until the researchers of this novel study decided to approached the problem from a unique angle.
The angle that they could try and harness the stem cell-obliterating action of zika virus in growing babies to destroy the stem-cell-like glioblastoma cells in adults.
How Did They Do it?
Glioblastomas have 4 major subtypes of glioblastoma stem cells (GSC).
And the researchers collected samples of only these major subtypes from patients, along with samples of well-differentiated glioma cells (DGC).
Then they allowed these cell types to grow in serum until they formed spheres of tumor cells that were large enough for the experiment.
That's when they infected the spheres with the African and American strains of zika virus (separately).
After 48 hours, both groups of GSC samples showed 60% infection by the viral strains. And after 7 days, the cellular spheres were completely obliterated.
Left: Clumps of cancer cells; Right: Destroyed by the virus.
In contrast, when the researchers introduced the virus into the DGC spheres, they shows slower rates of infection compared to the GSC clumps, and all spheres remained unaffected by the end of 7 days.
On closer examination, the team observed that 90% of cells that were infected by the virus were positive for GSC markers (SOX2).
And they observed the same when they injected the virus into glioblastoma samples collected fresh after surgery.
What Does This Mean For Us?
When the experiments with zika virus proved to be successful, the team tried replicating the results using West Nile Virus, which is part of the same flavivirus family as the zika.
Unfortunately, the west nile virus obliterated both GSC and DGC samples in the lab, which eliminated the question of its usefulness in virotherapy.
That means not only is the zika virus unique within the family of flaviviruses, it is also a suitable candidate for virotherapy against a cancer that has till now only baffled the medical fraternity.
But whether it makes the cut or drops out is something only time will tell.
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