Zika Vaccine Being Tested as Treatment for Brain Cancer That Killed John McCain

The Zika virus has been used to kill brain cancer stem cells in mice.

In a study, published this week in the open access journal mBio®, researchers say they successfully used a Zika virus vaccine to kill human glioblastoma brain cancer stem cells – which had been transplanted into mice.

It is exciting to turn the ‘bad’ side of the virus into cancer treatment,” said, Pei-Yong Shi, Ph.D., lead investigator from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston

Glioblastoma is a deadly form of brain cancer. John McCain died of the disease over the summer – and about 15,000 adults die from it in the U.S. every year. Glioblastoma has a high recurrence rate, which scientists suspect is due to glioblastoma stem cells that hide in nearby brain tissue and manage to avoid being targeted by surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.

But how does the Zika virus, which is dangerous for pregnant women and led to an epidemic and a travel warning from the CDC in 2016, work against brain cancer? The researchers made the connection because during the Zika epidemic, it became clear that when a pregnant woman became infected, the virus would attack a kind of stem cell in the fetus – leading to birth defects. Researchers from Galveston and China reasoned that perhaps the Zika virus could also infect glioblastoma stem cells because these cells have  similar properties to the ones Zika was attacking.

Next, the question became how to use the Zika virus in a safe way. The researchers came up with a vaccine candidate called ZIKV-LAV – and observed no negative health effects on the injected mice. While these early results appear promising, what works in mice often won’t hold up when tested on humans.

Shi says the next step is “increasing the safety and increasing the specific cancer-killing activity” of the vaccine.

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