Could Zika virus hold the key to fighting brain tumours? 

Lara, who born with microcephaly in Brazil
Lara, who born with microcephaly in Brazil Credit:  Felipe Dana

Zika virus could destroy brain tumours, scientists hope, as they launch the first trial to test whether the devastating disease could cure cancer.

The University of Cambridge is to trial Zika on glioblastoma, the most common and aggressive form of brain tumour, which affects 2,200 people in Britain each year.

Crucially, unlike other treatments, the virus can pass the blood-brain barrier - a membrane which acts like a filter to prevent all but the most vital nutrients passing through.

Zika’s ability to pass through this barrier causes severe disability in babies by attacking stem cells in the developing brain, but scientists hope to harness the same trait to fight cancer.

The Zika virus is transmitted through mosquitoes and damages babies if expectant mothers are bitten Credit:  Felipe Dana

In glioblastoma, the cancer cells resemble those in the developing brain, suggesting that the Zika infection could attack them too.

Dr Harry Bulstrode, a Cancer Research UK scientist at the University of Cambridge, said: “Zika virus infection in babies and children is a major global health concern, and the focus has been to discover more about the virus to find new possible treatments.

“We’re taking a different approach, and want to use these new insights to see if the virus can be unleashed against one of the hardest to treat cancers.

“We hope to show that the Zika virus can slow down brain tumour growth in tests in the lab.  

“If we can learn lessons from Zika’s ability to cross the blood-brain barrier and target brain stem cells selectively, we could be holding the key to future treatments.”

Hundreds of babies were born with microcephaly following the Zika outbreak in South America  Credit:  Felipe Dana

The research, using tumour cells in the laboratory and in mice, will see if the virus can destroy cancer cells.

This early stage research will explore how the virus targets stem cells and provide the starting point to develop new treatments that seek out the tumour and spare the surrounding healthy brain tissue.

Dr Iain Foulkes, director of research and innovation at Cancer Research UK, which is funding the research, said: “We urgently need new insights and treatments to tackle glioblastomas, one of the most common and difficult to treat forms of brain tumours.

“Finding new ways to treat brain tumours to help more people survive the disease is a priority for Cancer Research UK.”