Cool science: using Zika virus to treat cancer?

Throughout the last two years there has been a great deal of news on the Zika virus – a virus spread by mosquitoes which was first identified in 1947 in Uganda. In a normal healthy adult Zika fever causes relatively mild symptoms or even none at all however the 2015-2016 Zika epidemic gave rise to widespread concern due to its propensity to cause microcephaly and brain defects in babies infected with the virus during development. The epidemic was declared over in late 2016 although there are still travel warnings to certain areas where the mosquitoes known to carry the virus are prevalent.

But research into this particular virus highlighted an interesting trait that we might be able to take advantage of – Zika has a preference for stem cells.

Zika and stem cells

The reason Zika virus is particularly dangerous in developing babies is that the virus causes damage in stem cells in the brain. A stem cell is a cell that isn’t yet programmed. They’re really important in development because when you create a baby you start with one sperm cell, one egg cell and these cells needs to combine, proliferate and then differentiate into all the different types of cell within the human body. Stem cells are unique cells that can be programmed or ‘differentiated’ into all sorts of different types of cells. Once a stem cell has differentiated it can’t turn back into a stem cell – a differentiated cell is committed to only ever being that cell type. The adult body has very, very few undifferentiated cells but a developing foetus has plenty. This explains the risk of Zika infection during pregnancy as Zika has been shown to target neural progenitor cells – a type of undifferentiated cell in the brain – that might lead to the microcephaly seen in babies infected with the virus during their development.

Crystal structure of the Zika virus

Zika and brain cancer

Cancer stem cells are quite a complicated thing that I’m not going to try and do justice in this post because it’s a topic that deserves its own post. Scientists believe that some cancers do have associated cancer stem cells. How exactly cancer stem cells might contribute to cancer progression is far from fully understood. However, we do believe that the presence of cancer stem cells might contribute to cancer therapy relapse. This is particularly concerning in glioblastoma – an aggressive form of brain cancer, which has poor survival rates despite our best efforts. Without treatment, median survival is around 3 months from diagnosis. With treatment we are able to extend that survival to 12-15 months however the cancer usually recurs. Scientists believe this recurrence is all down to the presence of cancer stem cells.

The study

So here’s the clever part. Cancer researchers know we have a problem in treating glioblastoma. They also realised that Zika virus is a relatively mild virus, which attacks stem cells. The adult brain doesn’t really have stem cells – unless the adult has glioblastoma. Cancer stem cells in the brain lead to cancer relapse; Zika attacks brain stem cells. Maybe we can make use of these two pieces of information.

So, scientists did some experiments. Firstly, they took some glioblastoma cells from patient tumours and they grew them in a dish in the lab. Then they infected them with Zika virus. They looked at either glioblastoma differentiated cells or glioblastoma stem cells. And they looked at the infection rate. Over 48 hours, over 60% of the stem cells were infected and this increased over time as the virus spread. The differentiated cells were infected too but not as much. What was especially interesting was that the stem cells infected with the virus had severely reduced ability to multiply and they had an increase in cell death. This was specific to only the stem cells and didn’t affect the differentiated cells. The virus kills cancer stem cells and prevents them from spreading.

Next the scientists took some patient tissue samples – this allowed them to look at a whole mixture of cells in a slightly more normal context without having to infect patients. They infected the tissue samples with Zika and saw that cancer samples were infected successfully and the virus only hit the stem cells and not the other cell types in the sample. They also looked at some brain samples from epilepsy patients and the virus didn’t infect them showing that the virus really is specific for stem cells!

Glioblastoma tissue sample (from the paper)


Finally, they used the virus to treat mouse models of glioblastoma. They took mice with glioblastoma tumours in the brain and infected them with the virus. They saw that the tumours were much smaller and the mouse had improved survival when they were infected with the virus compared to control treated mice. They went on to show that they got an even better effect when combined with other glioblastoma treatments.


Current treatments have two problems when it comes to glioblastoma. Firstly, the cancer stem cells make recurrence almost inevitable. This could drastically improve average survival times. Secondly, all brain cancer treatments have to be able to cross the blood-brain barrier in order to get through to the cancer cells. The blood brain barrier is an important way to keep things out of the brain where they might cause damage but it also serves as a way to keep brain tumours trapped in and harder to treat. Zika is great at crossing the blood-brain barrier.

What next?

We’re still such a long way from this being a useful patient treatment. In order to use this as a treatment we need to modify the virus in such a way that it will not spread from person to person and it will not cause the patient any harm. Currently virus work is always done in very specialised laboratories with expert training on how to prevent spread and with many, many precautions. If it were to be used as a therapy we’d need lots and lots of precautions to make sure it were safe. So far this has only been done in lab grown cells (albeit ones taken from patients mouse models of cancer. But it’s incredibly interesting research and a great example of how cancer research is so quick to develop and understand how we can take advantage of what we know about the disease and use that to treat it.


Please let me know in the comments if you’d like to see a post on any of the topics from this post – Zika virus, glioblastoma, stem cells?

If you found this interesting, please share it with three other people who might find it interesting too! Sharing cool cancer research gives us all a little more hope!


Image credit for the crystal structure of Zika: By Manuel Almagro Rivas – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Author: Dr Alice Howarth

I am a science loving PhD cancer researcher with a passion for science accessibility. I like cell biology, scientific skepticism and equality. For almost 5 years I have been an integral part of The Merseyside Skeptics society - a non-profit organisation which aims to promote scientific reasoning, nationally and internationally. I am co-host of the successful podcast, Skeptics with a K where I discuss topical science stories on a fortnightly basis. I am a science communicator to a wide variety of audiences from school age children to interested members of the public and academic researchers.

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