A cure for herpes? There is progress to report (2023)

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A cure for herpes? There is progress to report (1)

It takes a persistent scientist to stop a persistent virus.

A decade ago, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center virologist Dr. Keith Jerome began exploring the idea that lifelong infections with herpes viruses might be cured by using the DNA-cutting tools of gene therapy.

Initial research showed these techniques could knock out small quantities of latent virus, and the work of improving the results fell to Jerome’s senior staff scientist, Dr. Martine Aubert. Five years ago, the team reported they had damaged the genes of 2%-4% of herpes virus in infected mice. Aubert’s work was an important proof of principle, but far short of a cure.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

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On Aug. 18, the team led by Jerome and Aubert published a paper inNature Communicationsshowing that, through a series of incremental improvements on their original method, they had destroyed up to 95% of herpes virus lurking in certain nerve clusters of mice.

“This is the first time that anybody has been able to go in and actually eliminate most of herpes in a body,” said Jerome, who is also spearheading research at Fred Hutch and the University of Washington on COVID-19. “It is a completely different approach to herpes therapy than anybody’s ever had before.”

The hidden herpes viruses are disabled by an injection that tracks down infected nerve cells and induces them to make special gene-cutting enzymes, which work like a molecular scissors, to slash viral genes in specific places. Much of the team’s meticulous work of the past five years has involved finding better ways to target infected clusters of nerve cells and to thwart the virus’s ability to quickly repair the cuts to its genes.

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A cure for herpes? There is progress to report (2)

'I hope that this study changes the dialogue around herpes research and opens up the idea that we can start thinking about cure, rather than just control of the virus.'

— Dr. Keith Jerome, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

Whereas most research on herpes has focused on suppressing the recurrence of painful symptoms, the Fred Hutch gene therapy work addresses the root cause of reactivation: the presence of latent virus in infected nerve cells.

“I hope that this study changes the dialogue around herpes research and opens up the idea that we can start thinking about cure, rather than just control of the virus,” Jerome said.

It will still take a long time before these experiments lead to the first human trials of gene therapy to cure herpes. Jerome estimates that will be at least three years away.

Herpes simplex viruses afflict billions of human beings around the globe. According to the World Health Organization, two-thirds of the world population under the age of 50 carry herpes simplex virus type 1, or HSV-1, which primarily causes cold sores, while 491 million people aged 15-49 are infected with closely related HSV-2, which is the cause of sexually transmitted genital herpes.

Although the antiviral drug acyclovir can knock down an outbreak of HSV-2, the virus lingers for a lifetime within infected nerve cells and may reactivate, causing recurrent bouts of painful sores, on average, two to seven times per year. The prevalence of this chronic disease increases with age. Less than 1% of teens in the United States are infected, but that increases to 21% of Americans in their 40s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HSV-2 infection not only complicates the sex lives of couples, it also increases a person’s susceptibility to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

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The Jerome Lab’s herpes research thus far involves only HSV-1, but the scientists are now working on ways to extend their success to HSV-2. The first step will be to repeat their experiments using HSV-2 in guinea pigs, which, unlike mice, experience natural reactivations of herpes virus infections, just as humans do.

Improvements in gene-editing tools — and patience — keys to success

The advances in herpes cure research over the past five years are largely due to a series of improvements in the gene editing tools. First, the researchers added combinations of different gene-cutting enzymes. The more cuts these molecular scissors make, the harder it is for the virus to recover.

Second, they chose different strains of harmless carrier viruses that do a better job of transporting those cutting tools to the places in the body where infected nerve cells are clustered.

“It’s been three or four years of work, but I think what we describe in the paper is a really big step,” said Aubert. “It gets us closer to really considering this as a curative approach. It gives us the green light.”

Since the earliest days of the experiments, the Jerome team learned to rely on a cutting enzyme called a “meganuclease” that can zero in on a segment of herpes DNA and cut both strands of the double helix. Despite the “mega” in its name, these scissors are extraordinarily small — about half the size of an antibody, those tiny, Y-shaped proteins our immune system uses to swarm over and disable viruses and bacteria.

It will still take a long time before these experiments lead to the first human trials of gene therapy to cure herpes. Jerome estimates that will be at least three years away.

The team attained its first promising results years ago using a single type of meganuclease that proved effective in cutting the herpes virus DNA, but the results were short-lived. The virus could rely on the infected cells’ own DNA-repair programs — which don’t distinguish between viral genes from their own — to fix the break most of the time.

But over time, the researchers found that they could eliminate up to 90% of the latent virus by using a mix of two or three different meganucleases. It is simply harder to repair two breaks than one. With more tinkering, the results continued to improve.

A workhorse of gene therapy

The researchers also refined their methods of transporting the molecular scissors to targeted nerve cells. From the beginning, Jerome and his team have relied on a harmless, hollowed-out virus that is drawn to the surface proteins of nerve cells. Called an adeno-associated virus vector, or AAV, it is the little workhorse of gene therapy. In this case, it is used to ferry to the infected nerve cells genetic instructions that cause them to make those meganucleases.

“We inject the AAV vector, and it finds its way,” Aubert said.

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Latent herpes viruses lurk in clusters of nerve cells called ganglia, and researchers have found that some ganglia are harder to reach than others. Over the years, they discovered that some AAV strains are better suited than others to find specific types of nerve clusters, and this has helped them fine-tune the selection of these delivery viruses to match infected cells in different places.

In their mouse experiments, the team continued to improve their results, nudging them up to a 95% reduction in herpesvirus infection in one prominent nerve cluster using a selection of two different meganucleases carried by three different flavors of AAVs. By selecting vectors that are primed for harder-to-reach nerve clusters, the group expects to continue improving their ability to eradicate the virus.

A cure for herpes? There is progress to report (3)

As the Jerome Lab prepares to see if its gene therapy can block genital herpes, they are also reshuffling their selection of vector viruses and meganucleases to target nerve cells infected by HSV-2. They are collaborating with Dr. Barry Stoddard, a Hutch colleague who specializes in discovering the structure of proteins, to custom-design a set of meganucleases that they hope will work even better than the first.

“The three enzymes they use already work pretty well, but one doesn’t quite work as well as the others,” Stoddard said. “We’re looking at the structure and determining a few changes to improve performance.”

Stoddard is also tweaking the meganucleases’ structures to make them a better fit against HSV-2.

In their latest paper, the team evaluated the use of a newer and more glamorous gene-cutting tool, CRISPR-Cas9. Somewhat surprisingly, they found that this newfangled precision cutting tool did not perform as well as their meganucleases. One possible reason: CRISPR is a much larger molecule, and the comparatively smaller meganucleases are easier to package and deliver to nerve cells.

A cure for herpes? There is progress to report (4)

Stoddard said that meganucleases can also more accurately zero in on their target genes than CRISPR, which is known for its “off-target” effects — cutting the wrong gene. The advantage of CRISPR is that it can be designed quickly, while meganucleases are laborious to make.

”It can take a day to make a new CRISPR. It takes about three months to make a meganuclease," Stoddard said.

Experience has shown, however, that the Jerome Lab is endowed with patience. Their 10-year trek has proven the potential of gene therapy for erasing herpes, yet the road ahead will undoubtedly require deep reserves of patience and persistence.

Aubert said that comes naturally to her.

(Video) Herpes Awareness Day: A message from Dr. Keith Jerome

“I don’t like to leave things unfinished, personally. I am like that,” she said.

The research was supported by the Caladan Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Meganucleases used in the experiments described in the Nature Communications paper were supplied by Paris-based Cellectis SA.

Note: Scientists at Fred Hutch played a role in developing these discoveries, and Fred Hutch and certain of its scientists may benefit financially from this work in the future.

Have a question about Fred Hutch herpes research? Please contact HSV@fredhutch.org.

Sabin Russell is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for theSan Francisco Chronicle, and wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs. Reach him atsrussell@fredhutch.org.

Are you interested in reprinting or republishing this story? Be our guest! We want to help connect people with the information they need. We just ask that you link back to the original article, preserve the author’s byline and refrain from making edits that alter the original context. Questions? Email us atcommunications@fredhutch.org

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FAQs

Are they close to finding a cure for herpes? ›

There is currently no cure or preventive treatment for herpes infection. If a person gets either form of herpes virus infection, they will have it for life, whether or not they experience symptoms.

What year will there be a herpes cure? ›

Early efforts to produce a protein-based vaccine for herpes failed. But a new mRNA approach has outperformed the efficacy of the past vaccines in preclinical trials and is expected to be introduced in clinical trials in the second half of 2022, investigators say.

Can you live a normal life after herpes? ›

People with herpes have relationships and live totally normal lives. There are treatments for herpes, and there's a lot you can do to make sure you don't give herpes to anyone you have sex with. Millions and millions of people have herpes — you're definitely not alone.

Does herpes worsen with age? ›

It might be annoying, but herpes doesn't get worse over time or cause serious health problems like other STDs can. If you don't get treated for herpes, you might keep having regular outbreaks, or they could only happen rarely. Some people naturally stop getting outbreaks after a while.

How do you keep herpes dormant? ›

Reducing Outbreaks
  1. Get plenty of sleep. This helps keep your immune system strong.
  2. Eat healthy foods. Good nutrition also helps your immune system stay strong.
  3. Keep stress low. Constant stress can weaken your immune system.
  4. Protect yourself from the sun, wind, and extreme cold and heat.

Can shingles vaccine help with herpes? ›

Does the herpes zoster vaccine protect you from genital herpes? No. The herpes zoster vaccine protects you against shingles (herpes zoster), a viral infection that is a reactivation of the chickenpox virus. 14 There is currently no vaccine to protect against genital or oral herpes.

Does herpes weaken your immune system? ›

CMV can also cause severe developmental disorders in children whose mothers are infected during pregnancy. Herpesviruses owe their successful spread to their complexity, which has enabled them to effectively slow down the human immune system in several different ways.

Does herpes affect your organs? ›

Herpes can also spread to internal organs, such as the liver and lungs. Infants infected with herpes are treated with acyclovir, an antiviral drug. They usually receive several weeks of intravenous acyclovir treatment, often followed by several months of oral acyclovir.

What does herpes do to the brain? ›

Herpes simplex encephalitis (HSE) is a rare neurological disorder characterized by inflammation of the brain (encephalitis). Common symptoms include headaches, fevers, drowsiness, hyperactivity, and/or general weakness.

How do mentally deal with herpes? ›

Keep in mind the following: Realize that it's normal to be stressed emotionally by herpes, especially at first. Give yourself time to adjust, and remember that the emotional issues will get easier. Try to keep in mind that genital herpes is somewhat like other infections you may have had in the past.

How do you stay healthy with herpes? ›

Ease Stress and Stay Healthy With Genital Herpes
  1. Get enough sleep. The more rested you are, the better you will be able to handle stress. ...
  2. Balance your diet. Make sure your diet includes all the nutrients the body needs to keep you going strong. ...
  3. Exercise. Physical activity is a great stress reliever. ...
  4. Reach out. ...
  5. Relax.

What happens to old people with herpes? ›

Herpes simplex virus (HSV) most commonly affects the genital and perioral regions. In the elderly, HSV infection is typically manifest at the vermilion border of the lip. The main concern of recurrent herpes labialis in the elderly is related to potential autoinoculation of the eye or genital area.

Do herpes outbreaks stop as you get older? ›

Over time, recurrences generally become less frequent and less severe. However, it is also possible to have a recurrence a few years after the initial HSV infection was acquired.

Does herpes make your VAG smell? ›

A person experiencing herpes discharge will notice that it is different from that of a normal discharge. It has a strong, foul, and pungent odor in both men and women, generally described as “fishy”.

What soap is good for herpes? ›

Self-Care Procedures for Genital Herpes: Bathe the affected genital area twice a day with mild soap and water. Gently pat dry with a towel or use a hair dryer set on warm. Using Aveeno (colloidal oatmeal soap or bath treatments) may also be soothing.

What causes herpes to reactivate? ›

Stimuli in humans that are linked to clinical HSV-1 reactivation include exposure to UV light, psychological stress, fever, and changes in hormone levels (Suzich and Cliffe, 2018). How these triggers result in reactivation of latent HSV-1 infection is not fully understood.

Does yeast infection cream help herpes? ›

The bottom line. Herpes and yeast infections are two separate conditions that require different treatments. If you're not sure you have a yeast infection, it's best to seek a doctor's diagnosis before self-treating with over-the-counter yeast infection medication.

How are you tested for herpes? ›

A healthcare provider may diagnose herpes by looking at any blisters or sores. They can also take a sample or swab from a blister or sore that is not already crusted over or healing. In fact, the tests that use these samples work best.

Can herpes turn into shingles? ›

The condition we call shingles is caused by herpes zoster. Herpes zoster is the same viral infection that causes chicken pox, and the herpes zoster virus can live in the body for years after the case of chicken pox is gone, and re-emerge as the painful blisters of shingles.

Can you get shingles in your private parts? ›

A person can get shingles on the genital area, but this is uncommon. Aside from blisters, genital shingles may also cause bladder and bowel problems. While shingles can cause genital lesions, other conditions, such as syphilis and genital herpes, can also have a similar presentation.

What does zinc do for herpes? ›

Zinc is also being studied as a topical treatment option for herpes. In a recent study from 2013, researchers found that topical application of zinc sulfate reduced the recurrence of herpes in a small test group.

Do white blood cells fight herpes? ›

The body controls herpes outbreaks with the immune system's white blood cells. These cells produce antibodies to neutralize the herpes virus and help make attacks less severe.

How do you build immunity to herpes? ›

Diet changes
  1. Antioxidant-rich veggies.
  2. Omega-3 fatty acids.
  3. Protein. Consuming a healthy level of protein is vital to the body's immune response to the herpes virus and other pathogens. ...
  4. Vitamin C. ...
  5. Zinc.
  6. Vitamin B complex. ...
  7. Avoid acid. ...
  8. Avoid L-arginine.

Can herpes live on towels? ›

In some rare instances, oral herpes can be transmitted via contaminated hard objects, such as a cup, toothbrush, or lipstick. Herpes can't live or thrive on porous surfaces, such as a towel. For this reason, you can't get oral or genital herpes from using someone else's towel.

Can herpes live on sheets? ›

Think of it this way: In general, the herpes virus needs to be inside the human body to survive—it dies quickly on the surfaces of inanimate objects like toilet seats, according to the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA).

How long herpes live on towels? ›

A California pediatrician has shown that the genital herpes virus, the most common cause of serious venereal disease in this country, can live for up to 72 hours on inanimate objects, such as cotton fabric.

Can homeopathy cure herpes permanently? ›

One study of 53 people with genital herpes found that those who were treated with homeopathy experienced improvement in their symptoms and were less likely to have recurrent outbreaks.

What other health problems can herpes cause? ›

Complications associated with genital herpes may include:
  • Other sexually transmitted infections. Having genital sores increases your risk of transmitting or contracting other sexually transmitted infections, including AIDS.
  • Newborn infection. ...
  • Bladder problems. ...
  • Meningitis. ...
  • Rectal inflammation (proctitis).
13 Oct 2020

Can MRI detect herpes? ›

In children and neonates, herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) accounts for 80-90% of neonatal and almost all congenital infections. The neuroimaging modality of choice for HSE diagnosis is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

What foods trigger herpes? ›

Some people with herpes have found that avoiding foods high in the amino acid Arginine, may reduce recurrences. Higher levels of Arginine are found in foods such as chocolate and many types of nuts. Excessive coffee (caffeine), red wine and smoking are also triggers for some people.

Are bananas good for herpes? ›

When you experience a herpes outbreak, whether it is in the form of genital herpes, cold sores or shingles, eating bananas may be a smart option.

What foods to avoid if you have herpes? ›

As such, it's best stay away from foods high in arginine like turkey breast, pork loin, chicken breast, nuts (peanuts in particular), pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, soybeans, dairy products and lentils during an outbreak of herpes.

What percent of population has herpes? ›

How common is genital herpes? Genital herpes infection is common in the United States. CDC estimated that there were 572,000 new genital herpes infections in the United States in a single year. Nationwide, 11.9 % of persons aged 14 to 49 years have HSV-2 infection (12.1% when adjusted for age).

Will the shingles vaccine help with herpes outbreaks? ›

Does the herpes zoster vaccine protect you from genital herpes? No. The herpes zoster vaccine protects you against shingles (herpes zoster), a viral infection that is a reactivation of the chickenpox virus. 14 There is currently no vaccine to protect against genital or oral herpes.

Is there a vaccine for herpes? ›

Although several candidate HSV vaccines have been tested in humans, currently there are no licensed vaccines against either HSV type.

How likely is it to spread herpes? ›

One study examined rates of genital herpes transmission in heterosexual couples when only one partner was initially infected [1]. Over one year, the virus was transmitted to the other partner in 10 percent of couples. In 70 percent of cases, infection occurred at a time when there were no symptoms.

What country has the highest rate of herpes? ›

HSV-2 is more common in Sub-Saharan Africa than in Europe or the North America. Up to 82% of women and 53% of men in Sub-Saharan Africa are seropositive for HSV-2. These are the highest levels of HSV-2 infection in the world, although exact levels vary from country to country in this continent.

Where in the world is herpes most common? ›

Herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) is a common infection in many countries, with prevalence in some regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, higher than in the USA. Prevalence in adult general populations in sub-Saharan Africa ranges from 30% to 80% in women, and from 10% to 50% in men.

Why do so many people have herpes? ›

Why Do So Many People Have Herpes? - YouTube

How are you tested for herpes? ›

A healthcare provider may diagnose herpes by looking at any blisters or sores. They can also take a sample or swab from a blister or sore that is not already crusted over or healing. In fact, the tests that use these samples work best.

Is shingles a form of herpes? ›

Shingles is more common in older adults and in people who have weakened immune systems. Varicella-zoster is part of a group of viruses called herpes viruses. This is the same group that includes the viruses that cause cold sores and genital herpes. As a result, shingles is also known as herpes zoster.

Does the HPV vaccine prevent herpes? ›

It is important to understand that the HPV vaccine does not protect against other STDs, such as syphilis, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and herpes, nor does it protect against types of HPV to which one was already exposed.

Does herpes affect your organs? ›

Herpes can also spread to internal organs, such as the liver and lungs. Infants infected with herpes are treated with acyclovir, an antiviral drug. They usually receive several weeks of intravenous acyclovir treatment, often followed by several months of oral acyclovir.

Does herpes weaken your immune system? ›

CMV can also cause severe developmental disorders in children whose mothers are infected during pregnancy. Herpesviruses owe their successful spread to their complexity, which has enabled them to effectively slow down the human immune system in several different ways.

Can herpes cause liver damage? ›

Discussion: Hepatitis and acute liver injury resulting from herpes simplex virus is a rare, but often fatal complication from this relatively common virus. It is most commonly seen in neonates, pregnant women and those who are immunocomprimised and its presentation can be similar to acute hepatitis.

Can you pass on herpes without a flare up? ›

Yes. Even when no sores are present, the herpes virus is still active in the body and can spread to others. If you or your partner has herpes, reduce the risk of spread by: using a condom every time you have sex (vaginal, oral, or anal).

Can a woman give a man herpes? ›

The general rate of transmission of a person who has had herpes to their regular partner is about 10 percent per year, but the annual rate rises if the infected partner is a male. Unfairly, the female partner has a 20 percent chance of becoming infected, while the male partner's risk is less than 10 percent.

Can herpes be transmitted through blood? ›

The herpes simplex viruses (HSV 1 and 2) can cause both cold sores and genital herpes. When the virus is actively multiplying it can cause tingling in the affected area and sores. There is a theoretical risk that the virus, or any secondary infection, could be passed on through transfusion.

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