Updated 27 February 2020

An unlikely treatment for brain tumours - the Ebola virus

Brain tumours tend to be relentless and hard to treat, but scientists have discovered a surprising treatment – elements of the Ebola virus.

Brain tumours, also known as glioblastomas, are tricky to treat and likely to be fatal. Yet, in new research, Yale researchers came across a very unlikely method to treat these tumours – the deadly virus known as Ebola.

"The irony is that one of the world's deadliest viruses may be useful in treating one of the deadliest of brain cancers," stated Yale's Dr Anthony van den Pol, professor of neurosurgery in a news report.

The research, detailing the science behind this, is published in the Journal of Virology.

Why are brain tumours so difficult to treat?

In the past, scientists have tested many types of viruses that might effectively fight and kill cancerous cells. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as simple as it sounded – it was challenging to identify viruses that would destroy a tumour without affecting healthy cells around it.

A previous lab test found that a virus in the rabies family could potentially target and kill brain tumours, but unfortunately, healthy brain tissue would also be attacked, leading to neurological problems or death, according to the Yale News release.

But now, Dr van den Pol and his team were looking at a specific gene found in the Ebola virus to see whether it would obliterate brain cancer cells without causing damage to healthy cells.

How does it work?

According to the report, the approach takes advantage of a weakness in most cancer tumours and of the Ebola virus’s defence against the immune system’s response to pathogens.

But why use a virus to fight another deadly illness if there is a risk of introducing a potentially dangerous infection?

Unlike normal cells, many cancer cells lack the ability to create an immune response against viruses, and that lead scientists to explore the possibility of a cancer treatment using viruses.

In the case of the Ebola virus, one of the seven genes of the virus helps it avoid an immune response – which means it will target cancer cells without creating the immune response that makes the virus lethal to the human body in the first place.

The study authors used a manufactured version of the Ebola virus which contained the one vital genetic component. This was then injected into the brains of mice with glioblastoma.

It was found that the virus selectively targeted and killed the brain tumour while the other cells were protected. More promising was that the virus continued to attack the tumour until it was completely destroyed.

Is there any hope?

So far, the effect of the virus has only been tested in rats, but Dr van den Pol and his team are hoping to get the green light for a clinical trial.

“We don’t yet know, in the long run, if it will work as well in humans,” Dr van den Pol states in the press release from Yale.

“Glioblastomas have a variety of genetic mutations – some of which may not be susceptible to the virus. We hope the Lassa-VSV virus will attack a substantial number of glioblastomas.”

Image credit: iStock


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