For most people, trying to navigate the world of new cancer treatments is not easy. The media reports on new discoveries like they are already viable treatments, and patients are often confused as to why they can’t access things they hear about on the news.
We’d like to help brain cancer patients and their families understand these discoveries a little bit better. The first step is really to understand that there is a big difference between what can happen in the lab and what happens in the human body. The lab gives us our first indications that something is worth exploring, but however promising something is in the lab, in the human body that path can lead to many things — from healing to death.
As our first example in what we hope will be an ongoing dialogue, let’s look at the Zika virus news. You’ve probably seen headlines like “Employing Zika Virus to Treat Advanced Brain Cancer” and “Zika Virus Targets and Kills Brain Cancer Stem Cells”. That sounds great, right? Who wouldn’t want to jump on that?
Unfortunately, these are still lab studies, and have a long way to go in proving safe and effective in humans. For some clarification, we reached out to Dr. Cheng-Ying Ho, MD, PhD, at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Dr. Ho has done some work with both the Zika virus and brain tumors.
Dr. Ho states, “The misconception about Zika originated from the earlier cell culture studies showing Zika preferentially infects neural stem cells. However, the cell culture system is an oversimplified model. It doesn’t have glia or inflammatory cells like human beings.”
She goes on to say, “Mouse models are a lot better, but most of the mice need to have a weakened immune system before they can be infected. Therefore these mice don’t have the immune response against the virus. It is also an artificial system.”
Many times, doctors and researchers are afraid to share preliminary results from studies because the general public may draw the wrong conclusions. Dr. Ho seems to share that concern. She states that her biggest concern about this seemingly promising strategy is the possibility of developing meningoencephalitis. Meningoencephalitis can be fatal and it has occurred in adult Zika patients.
Dr. Ho ended our interactions by saying, “The concept of using Zika virus to treat glioblastoma is very creative but may be difficult to be put into practice due to the possibility of fatal uncontrollable side effects.”
We also talked to Dr. Javad Nazarian of Children’s National Health System because of his work on pediatric brain tumors. He said that the issue is more complicated in children. “A child’s brain is constantly growing and making neuronal connections. It is an active environment and any time we apply drugs that indiscriminately target tumor AND healthy cells, we could potentially do more harm than good. That is why laboratory findings need rigorous testing and multiple validation steps before they have clinical benefits.” He went on to say that this is one reason that discovery and validation of effective treatments takes time.
Obviously, there are labs who are very interested in pursuing Zika as a possible treatment agent. We know that creative measures will be needed to combat GBM and other aggressive brain cancers, so we will continue to hope that one of these creative solutions will turn out to be a viable solution in humans. Will that be Zika? It seems to be too early to say, but for now, patients should not expect this to be a treatment that would be offered soon.
Note: This article is not intended as medical advice and you should always seek the opinion of your physician before starting or stopping any new treatment. Blog post was first published on Medium.com.