Zika virus could hold key to treating pediatric cancer

Researches at UCF, Nemours conduct studies

ORLANDO, Fla. – For the past year, a team of researchers from Nemours Children's Hospital and the University of Central Florida have been working inside a lab in search of new treatment for cancer patients. How? By turning to the mosquito borne illness, the Zika virus.

"This virus might be very useful for actually treating a pediatric cancer. It's early yet. We don't have it as a treatment, but this is the pathway we're on," said Dr. Kenneth Alexander, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Neumours Children's Hospital. 

A path that offers a ray of light to about 800 children diagnosed each year with neuroblastoma in the United States. The disease accounts for 6 percent of all childhood cancers in the U.S., affecting mostly kids under the age of 5, according the American Cancer Society.

"This is very significant because high risk neuroblastoma can be very resistant to treatment that we have today," said doctor Tamarah Westmoreland, a pediatric and thoracic surgeon who is a also part of the research team.

In most cases, children that have neuroblastoma do not respond well to the current standard treatments of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation, resulting in a high number of deaths. That's why there's a need to identify new therapies for high-risk cases. 

"What we're trying to do is think outside the box and what can we do to reduce the current complications as well as long term effects," Westmoreland said. 

How did a feared virus that affects pregnant women and unborn babies help these four researchers?

They put the virus into some cells with the cancer and then measured the impact. Ten days after infection, they found the Zika virus attacked most of the bad nerve cells developed by neuroblastoma, but it left the normal cells intact. 

"The big take home message is have hope and believe in basic science because many of the clinical trials and current therapies today, began as ideas in a basic science lab," said Westmoreland, about the small but large step forward that will provide groundwork for future investigations.

The findings have been published in the Public Library of Science.  

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