banner by Alex McDonough

Hope Amidst the Zika Virus Devastation

by Reyna Jones

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. The nearly unbelievable research stemmed from a deduction worthy of Sherlock Holmes. If the Zika virus has the ability to cause devastating birth defects as a result of its tendency to target developing brain cells in babies, could it be used to kill developing glioblastomas - aggressive, rapidly growing, cancerous brain and spinal cord tumors?   

Since 2015 nearly 5,500 Zika virus cases have been reported in the United States, most resulting from individuals who traveled outside the country to areas affected by the virus. Areas in the U.S. most heavily impacted by mosquito-borne Zika virus transmission include Southeastern Texas, near the Mexican border, and Southern Florida. There is rising concern in the U.S. due to the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma which have left behind perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Like many harmful viruses and diseases, the Zika virus is most commonly spread by means of infected Aedes mosquitoes. Symptoms of the virus include fever, rash, headache, muscle pain, joint pain, and red eyes. Surprisingly, people may not even realize that they have been infected by the Zika virus because 80% of people do not experience symptoms or symptoms are subtle and easily disregarded. Additionally, Zika can greatly effect unborn babies, causing severe defects such as microcephaly, a condition in which a baby’s head is too small as a result of an underdeveloped brain. Although the Zika virus has been out of the limelight in the past months, a recent study making major headlines anticipates a new way to attack glioblastomas.

Glioblastomas are formed from astrocytes, cells in the brain named for their “star-like” shape. The arms of the stars have numerous branches known as processes that can interact with thousands of neurons. Astrocytes are essential to the function of the brain and are the most prevalent cell type in the central nervous system. Problems arise if astrocytes become malignant and multiply to form a Glioblastoma. Glioblastomas are extremely difficult to treat as the tumor is not encapsulated, but entwined and spread throughout the brain. If the tumor is diagnosed before it reaches a considerable size, surgery can be performed to remove the more concentrated epicenter, however, the entire tumor cannot be completely removed. Presently, radiation and chemotherapy generally follows surgery in an attempt to purge the brain of the rest of the tumor. If the glioblastoma is unresectable, patients are most likely treated with radiation and chemotherapy, or are sent home with a typically two to three month life expectancy. Although the prognosis for someone who has been diagnosed with a glioblastoma is bleak, new research conducted by a team of scientists across the U.S. has provided a gleam of hope amidst the devastation surrounding both glioblastomas and the Zika virus.

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine, the University of California School of Medicine in San Diego and the Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute conducted a variety of experiments to determine the effectiveness of the Zika virus in targeting glioblastoma stem cells. When glioblastomas form, these cancerous stem cells are thought to resist standard therapy (e.g. chemotherapy and radiation) and contribute to tumor initiation and regrowth. Researchers first tested human brain tissue in vitro and found that the Zika virus preferentially targeted the glioblastoma stem cells without causing significant damage to mature, tumor cells or healthy, non-cancerous cells. Next, researchers tested their hypothesis in vivo by using mouse models. They injected a mouse-adapted Zika virus into mice with glioblastoma. They compared the tumor sizes of the virus-injected mice to a group of mice receiving a control. Researchers determined that the Zika virus injection significantly decreased tumor size and increased survival. Finally, the researchers manipulated the strength of the Zika virus injection to determine the effect on glioblastoma stem cells. As one may expect, increase in dosage resulted in greater efficiency in targeting the cancerous stem cells. Researchers believe that Zika injection should be paired with current treatment methods for glioblastoma. Radiation and chemotherapy would be best used to target the more concentrated mass of the tumor while Zika injection would be used as a supplement in attacking the remaining glioblastoma stem cells so that regeneration and relapse does not occur.

Approximately 12,000 people are diagnosed with glioblastoma every year in the U.S. Although the new Zika treatment has not yet reached clinical trials, it promises a more effective treatment for the many people who suffer from this devastating prognosis. An east wind is coming and it just may take cancer in the end.