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.”

 

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: spinal cord injury trial keeps pace; SMART cells make cartilage and drugs

CIRM-funded spinal cord injury trial keeping a steady pace

Taking an idea for a stem cell treatment and developing it into a Food and Drug Administration-approved cell therapy is like running the Boston Marathon because it requires incremental progress rather than a quick sprint. Asterias Biotherapeutics continues to keep a steady pace and to hit the proper milestones in its race to develop a stem cell-based treatment for acute spinal cord injury.


Just this week in fact, the company announced an important safety milestone for its CIRM-funded SciStar clinical trial. This trial is testing the safety and effectiveness of AST-OPC1, a human embryonic stem cell-derived cell therapy that aims to regenerate some of the lost movement and feeling resulting from spinal cord injuries to the neck.

Periodically, an independent safety review board called the Data Monitoring Committee (DMC) reviews the clinical trial data to make sure the treatment is safe in patients. That’s exactly what the DMC concluded as its latest review. They recommended that treatments with 10 and 20 million cell doses should continue as planned with newly enrolled clinical trial participants.

About a month ago, Asterias reported that six of the six participants who had received a 10 million cell dose – which is transplanted directly into the spinal cord at the site of injury – have shown improvement in arm, hand and finger function nine months after the treatment. These outcomes are better than what would be expected by spontaneous recovery often observed in patients without stem cell treatment. So, we’re hopeful for further good news later this year when Asterias expects to provide more safety and efficacy data on participants given the 10 million cell dose as well as the 20 million cell dose.

It’s a two-fer: SMART cells that make cartilage and release anti-inflammation drug
“It’s a floor wax!”….“No, it’s a dessert topping!”
“Hey, hey calm down you two. New Shimmer is a floor wax and a dessert topping!”

Those are a few lines from the classic Saturday Night Live skit that I was reminded of when reading about research published yesterday in Stem Cell Reports. The clever study generated stem cells that not only specialize into cartilage tissue that could help repair arthritic joints but the cells also act as a drug dispenser that triggers the release of a protein that dampens inflammation.

Using CRISPR technology, a team of researchers led by Farshid Guilak, PhD, at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, rewired stem cells’ genetic circuits to produce an anti-inflammatory arthritis drug when the cells encounter inflammation. The technique eventually could act as a vaccine for arthritis and other chronic conditions. Image: ELLA MARUSHCHENKO

The cells were devised by a research team at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. They started out with skin cells collected from the tails of mice. Using the induced pluripotent stem cell technique, the skin cells were reprogrammed into an embryonic stem cell-like state. Then came the ingenious steps. The team used the CRISPR gene-editing method to create a negative feedback loop in the cells’ inflammation response. They removed a gene that is activated by the potent inflammatory protein, TNF-alpha and replaced it with a gene that blocks TNF-alpha. Analogous experiments were carried out with another protein called IL-1.

Rheumatoid arthritis often affects the small joints causing painful swelling and disfigurement. Image: Wikipedia

Now, TNF-alpha plays a key role in triggering inflammation in arthritic joints. But this engineered cell, in the presence of TNF-alpha, activates the production of a protein that inhibits the actions of TNF-alpha. Then the team converted these stem cells into cartilage tissue and they went on to show that the cartilage was indeed resistant to inflammation. Pretty smart, huh? In fact, the researchers called them SMART cells for “Stem cells Modified for Autonomous Regenerative Therapy.” First author Dr. Jonathan Brunger summed up the approach succinctly in a press release:

“We hijacked an inflammatory pathway to create cells that produced a protective drug.”

This type of targeted treatment of arthritis would have a huge advantage over current anti-TNF-alpha therapies. Arthritis drugs like Enbrel, Humira and Remicade are very effective but they block the immune response throughout the body which carries an increased risk for serious infections and even cancer.

The team is now testing the cells in animal models of rheumatoid arthritis as well as other inflammation disorders. Those results will be important to determine whether or not this approach can work in a living animal. But senior Dr. Farshid Guilak also has an eye on future applications of SMART cells:

“We believe this strategy also may work for other systems that depend on a feedback loop. In diabetes, for example, it’s possible we could make stem cells that would sense glucose and turn on insulin in response. We are using pluripotent stem cells, so we can make them into any cell type, and with CRISPR, we can remove or insert genes that have the potential to treat many types of disorders.”