There’s an old adage that says “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, and it looks as if that saying may have found a new application in modern medicine. Just one year ago, the Zika Virus dominated the headlines, spreading anxiety and panic across the country—especially among pregnant mothers. The virus, known for causing severe birth defects such as microcephaly, caused epidemic scares, terminated travel plans, and quickly rose to the top of 2016’s “public enemies” list.
But despite its dangerous reputation, scientists may have found a way to put the Zika Virus to work in our favor. If the virus attacks fetal stem cells in the brain, they hypothesized, perhaps it can be used to attack the stem cells in a brain tumor. It’s a bold theory, but thanks to researchers at Washington University, it’s one that’s now a step closer to being proven fact.
“We take a virus, learn how it works and then we leverage it,” said Dr. Michael Diamond, a professor of molecular microbiology, pathology and immunology. “Let’s take advantage of what it’s good at, use it to eradicate cells we don’t want. Take viruses that would normally do some damage and make them do some good.”
So far, the research labs have focused their efforts on surgically removed glioblastoma stem cells (the most common form of brain cancer, one recently diagnosed in Senator John McCain), and the results have been promising. The virus killed the isolated glioblastoma cells (which are generally resistant to treatment), and when tested on mice, brain tumors shrank considerably.
The researchers are still several steps away from clinical trials on humans, but the future is promising, with the ultimate goal being the removal of tumors and prevention of their return.
“Our study is a first step towards the development of safe and effective strains of Zika virus that could become important tools in neuro-oncology and the treatment of glioblastoma,” Diamond said, according to the news release. “However, public health concerns will need to be addressed through pre-clinical testing and evaluations of the strains’ ability to disseminate or revert to more virulent forms.”
In other words, before scientists consider releasing the treatment to the public, they want to be absolutely certain that they’ve prevented any possibility of the Zika Virus “going rogue”.
One method researchers explored was the use of a mutated version of the virus, one weaker and more sensitive to the human immune system. While this approach also required the use of a chemotherapy drug, it did show positive results, and could be one potential direction for the treatment.
It’s the medical equivalent of turning lemons into lemonade, and our fingers are crossed for their success.
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