Can Zika fight brain cancer? Brazilian researchers think so

Zika virus has had a significant impact in North and South America, most notably by causing microcephaly in babies born to infected mothers. But Brazilian researchers have found the deadly virus may be an effective treatment for glioblastoma—the most common and aggressive form of malignant brain tumor in adults. 

The group of scientists from the University of Campina’s School of Pharmaceutical Sciences (FCF-UNICAMP) in Sao Paulo State published findings online Feb. 2 in the Journal of Mass Spectrometry.

"Zika virus, which has become a threat to health in the Americas, could be genetically modified to destroy glioblastoma cells," said Rodrigo Ramos Catharino, a professor at FCF-UNICAMP and head of the institution's Innovare Biomarker Laboratory in a Feb. 21 university release.

Separate research undertaken to better understand Zika found the human neural progenitor cells die more quickly when infected by Zika. These cells eventually lead to the production of brain cells and may be the cause of microcephaly in babies born to infected mothers.

The team at FCF-UNICAMP infected human malignant glioblastoma cells with Zika, recording images seen under the microscope at 24 and 48 hours post-infection.

Those images revealed glioblastoma cells underwent moderate metabolic alterations 24 hours after infection but severe effects 48 hours after infection. The effects were consistent with signs of cell death.

Mass spectrometry imaging was used to determine the main compounds the glioblastoma cells produced, showing that 24 hours after infection cells began producing cardiac glycosides, including digoxin—a molecule proven to reduce multiplication and increase mortality of cells in melanoma, breast cancer and neuroblastoma.

The group then suggested a genetically engineered Zika virus may be effective in eliminating the effects of infection while simultaneously sparing the digoxin-producing particles.

"The use of oncolytic viruses (viruses genetically engineered to destroy tumor cells) is at an advanced stage, especially to treat skin cancer and myeloma (bone marrow cancer)," Catharino said in the release "Zika could be a candidate for the treatment of glioblastoma."