Zika Virus Vaccine: A New Hope Against Brain Cancer

zika virus brain cancer

In a groundbreaking discovery, scientists from Duke-NUS Medical School have unveiled a novel approach to combating brain cancer. They employ strains of the Zika virus vaccine to selectively destroy tumour cells without harming healthy tissue.

This research was spotlighted in the Journal of Translational Medicine. It heralds a potential paradigm shift in treating brain cancer patients, who often face grim prognoses.

A Breakthrough in Oncolytic Virotherapy

Glioblastoma multiforme is the most prevalent form of malignant brain cancer. It affects over 300,000 individuals globally each year. Additionally, survival rates remain low at approximately 15 months post-diagnosis. The Duke-NUS team’s exploration into oncolytic virotherapy, which utilises engineered viruses to target and kill cancer cells, has spotlighted the Zika virus as a promising candidate.

The researchers utilised live-attenuated vaccine (ZIKV-LAV) strains of the Zika virus. Subsequently, they discovered these “weakened” viruses excel in infecting fast-multiplying cells within tumours, sparing healthy cells. “We selected Zika virus because it naturally infects rapidly multiplying cells in the brain, allowing us to reach cancer cells that are traditionally difficult to target. Our ZIKV-LAV strains also replicate themselves in brain cancer cells, making this a living therapy that can spread and attack neighbouring diseased cells,” explained Dr Carla Bianca Luena Victorio, a leading researcher on the project.

Targeted Attack on Cancer Cells

The Zika virus vaccine strains bind to proteins abundant in cancer cells but scarce in healthy cells. Upon infecting cancer cells, the strains utilise the host cell’s machinery to replicate, leading to the cell’s destruction and the release of new virus particles capable of infecting neighbouring tumour cells. This process also triggers an immune response, potentially inhibiting further tumour growth.

Initial experiments show ZIKV-LAV strains induced death in 65 to 90% of glioblastoma cells tested while sparing 80 to 91% of healthy brain blood vessel cells. These findings underscore the vaccine strains’ potential as a safer, more targeted approach to brain cancer treatment than their wild-type counterparts.

Pioneering Safe and Effective Treatments

The research builds on Zika vaccine strains initially developed for infectious disease prevention by Professor Ooi Eng Eong’s team at Duke-NUS. Further tests on human stem cell-derived brain neurons ensured the strains’ safety and efficacy for therapeutic use. Assistant Professor Ann-Marie Chacko, the study’s senior author, emphasised the virus’s repositioning from a feared pathogen to a potential lifesaver. “This illustrates the duality of viruses – from agents of disease to allies in cancer treatment,” she stated.

The team is now enhancing the virus strains to boost their cancer-fighting abilities and ensure patient safety, with an eye towards commercialising their use in treating not only the brain but potentially other cancers like ovarian cancer.

A Collaborative Triumph

This research exemplifies Duke-NUS’s collaborative spirit, combining expertise across disciplines to push the boundaries of medical science. Professor Patrick Tan, Senior Vice-Dean for Research at Duke-NUS, said: “This is a sterling example of how different research programmes within the School come together to tap their various expertise to advance medical knowledge and improve patients’ lives. The team’s valuable insights may one day translate into a new treatment option to control tumour growth or even offer a cure for cancer.”

With this innovative use of the Zika virus vaccine, the fight against brain cancer enters a promising new era, offering hope to those battling this challenging disease.

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