Spring 2018

Can Zika fight cancer?


If the Zika virus can cause devastating damage to a baby’s developing brain, could it also wipe out a brain tumor? Walter Low, a neuroscientist with the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, was intrigued by the idea.

“We were really struck by how powerful the Zika virus is in terms of affecting the developing brain in utero,” Low says. “So we began to look at why that might be.”

It turns out that the Zika virus binds to specific receptors on cells that are required for normal brain development. When infected with the Zika virus, those cells die.

Informed by their previous research, Low and his team knew that the cells responsible for a brain tumor’s growth and spread had similar receptors. 

Lab testing confirmed their suspicion: “We found that there was a robust infection of those cells,” Low says. In other words, the Zika virus also was killing the cells that make brain tumors.

Low’s team hopes to use this knowledge to create a Zika-based therapy for dogs that spontaneously develop brain tumors, and eventually one for humans.

Support from the Randy Shaver Cancer Research and Community Fund was critical for this study, Low says. “Without their support, this just would have been an idea.”