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Glioblastoma Stem Cells May Be No Match for the Zika Virus

In an ironic turn of events, it seems that the Zika virus, which has devastating effects on the brains of newborn infants, may, in fact, be able to kill the stem cells of one of the deadliest forms of cancer in adults: glioblastoma. These findings come from research conducted at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, and published in The Journal of Experimental Medicine.

According to the official press release from Washington University, about 12,000 individuals are diagnosed with glioblastoma in the United States, each year, US Senator John McCain among them. Treatment for the disease typically includes surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation; however, tumors are known to recur within 6 months. This is thought to be because “a small population of cells, known as glioblastoma stem cells, often survives the [treatment] and continues to divide, producing new tumor cells to replace the ones killed by the cancer drugs,” according to the press release. The average lifespan for an individual after diagnosis is 1 year.

The cancer’s ability to create new cells, however, led first author and postdoctoral researcher Zhe Zhu, PhD, from University of California San Diego, to think about “neuroprogenitor cells, which generate cells for the growing brain.” These same cells are targeted and killed by the Zika virus. To learn whether the virus would effectively kill the glioblastoma stem cells, the researchers, “injected tumors removed from patients at diagnosis [with glioblastoma] with 1 of 2 strains of the Zika virus,” according to the press release. The findings showed that both strains of the virus were competent at killing the stem cells, while avoiding other tumor cells.

Based on these results, the researchers concluded that the Zika virus may be able to work in conjunction with chemotherapy and radiation to completely eradicate the tumor, with the virus killing the stems cells and the standard therapy taking care of the rest. To this end, co-senior author Milan G. Chheda, MD, of Washington University School of Medicine, was quoted in the press release as saying, “We see Zika one day being used in combination with current therapies to eradicate the whole tumor.”

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