Taming the Zika virus to kill cancer stem cells that drive lethal brain tumor

An out of control flame can be very dangerous, even life-threatening. But when harnessed, that same flame sustains life in the form of warm air, a source of light, and a means to cook.

A similar duality holds true for viruses. Once it infects the body, a virus can replicate like wildfire and cause serious illness and sometimes death. But in the lab, researchers can manipulate viruses to provide an efficient, harmless method to deliver genetic material into cells, as well as to prime the immune system to protect against future infections.

In a Journal of Experimental Medicine study published this week, researchers from the University of Washington, St. Louis and UC San Diego also show evidence that a virus, in this case the Zika virus, could even be a possible therapy for a hard-to-treat brain cancer called glioblastoma.

Brain cancer stem cells (left) are killed by Zika virus infection (image at right shows cells after Zika treatment). Image: Zhe Zhu, Washington U., St. Louis.

Recent outbreaks of the Zika virus have caused microcephaly during fetal development. Babies born with microcephaly have a much smaller than average head size due to a lack of proper brain development. Children born with this condition suffer a wide range of devastating symptoms like seizures, difficulty learning, and movement problems just to name a few. In the race to understand the outbreak, scientists have learned that the Zika virus induces microcephaly by infecting and killing brain stem cells, called neural progenitors, that are critical for the growth of the developing fetal brain.

Now, glioblastoma tumors contain a small population of cells called glioblastoma stem cells (GSCs) that, like neural progenitors, can lay dormant but also make unlimited copies of themselves.  It’s these properties of glioblastoma stem cells that are thought to allow the glioblastoma tumor to evade treatment and grow back. The research team in this study wondered if the Zika virus, which causes so much damage to neural progenitors in developing babies, could be used for good by infecting and killing cancer stem cells in glioblastoma tumors in adult patients.

To test this idea, the scientists infected glioblastoma brain tumor samples with Zika and showed that the virus spreads through the cells but primarily kills off the glioblastoma stem cells, leaving other cells in the tumor unscathed. Since radiation and chemotherapy are effective at killing most of the tumor but not the cancer stem cells, a combination of Zika and standard cancer therapies could provide a knockout punch to this aggressive brain cancer.

Even though Zika virus is much more destructive to the developing fetal brain than to adult brains, it’s hard to imagine the US Food and Drug Administration ever approving the injection of a dangerous virus into the site of a glioblastoma tumor. So, the scientists genetically modified the Zika virus to make it more sensitive to the immune system’s first line of defense called the innate immunity. With just the right balance of genetic alterations, it might be possible to retain the Zika virus’ ability to kill off cancer stem cells without causing a serious infection.

The results were encouraging though not a closed and shut case: when glioblastoma cancer stem cells were infected with these modified Zika virus strains, the virus’ cancer-killing abilities were weaker than the original Zika strains but still intact. Based on these results, co-senior author and WashU professor, Dr. Michael S. Diamond, plans to make more tweaks to the virus to harness it’s potential to treat the cancer without infecting the entire brain in the process.

“We’re going to introduce additional mutations to sensitize the virus even more to the innate immune response and prevent the infection from spreading,” said Diamond in a press release. “Once we add a few more changes, I think it’s going to be impossible for the virus to overcome them and cause disease.”

 

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