Genital herpes is a virus that has no known cure. However, antiviral medications can be used to prevent or shorten outbreaks, and reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to others. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center is an independent organization that acts as UW Medicine's cancer program, and its scientists have made the study of human herpesviruses a priority. They are exploring the epidemiology of genital herpes, using advanced microscopy and immunology to study where these viruses hide in tissues and how they are controlled by immune cells embedded near sites of infection in the body.
Keith Jerome and staff scientist Dr. Martine Aubert have garnered worldwide attention for their work using gene therapy to attack HSV, which is responsible for cold sores and genital herpes. The team has designed an enzyme that cuts herpes genes and lodges itself in the groups of nerves where the virus hides. In mice, this technique has destroyed up to 95% of the latent virus, and they hope to test it in humans once their preclinical studies are finished.
T cells embedded in tissues where latent HSV-2 hides are known to play a role in controlling the virus, and Hutch scientists are also exploring how B cells, the immune system's factories that produce antibodies, work to keep the virus under control. They hope to leverage this knowledge to develop immunotherapies that control reactivation, reduce transmission to sexual partners, and design vaccines to prevent infection. Jennifer Lund discovered that, in response to genital herpes, a type of T cell thought to suppress inflammation actually stimulates the immune response. His team is exploring how these cells work to control the virus, particularly in mucosal tissues where infections begin - research that could help develop a herpes vaccine.
In another surprising discovery, Hutch researchers from the Corey Laboratory discovered that HSV-2 uses a small protein to help repair damaged nerves. As the virus travels along the nerves, it repairs them so that it can spread the infection to other tissues. The team is studying whether this newly discovered (and rare) nerve growth factor could be used to reduce nerve damage, known as neuropathy, which is often a side effect of chemotherapy in patients with cancer. Cytomegalovirus (CMV), or human herpesvirus 5, can cause loss of vision or hearing and represents a risk of brain damage to newborns infected during pregnancy. It is also an extremely common virus that remains latent but harmless in the human body throughout life.
However, it can reactivate and pose a lethal threat to immunocompromised patients, especially those recovering from a transplant. For this reason, controlling CMV has been a cornerstone of research on Fred Hutch's virus since the early days of bone marrow transplantation. The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), or human herpesvirus 4, is so common that virtually everyone can expect to be infected throughout their lifetime. Long implicated in infectious mononucleosis, it has more recently been associated with multiple sclerosis - a disease that weakens nerves - as well as Burkitt lymphoma - a rare childhood cancer in the US but endemic in some parts of Africa. Fred Hutch researchers discovered a powerful antibody that can block EBV, which could contribute to the development of a vaccine against Epstein-Barr virus. Human herpesvirus 6 is responsible for roseola - a common and usually mild rash in infants - but like CMV it can reactivate and pose a serious threat to patients recovering from bone marrow or blood stem cell transplants.
It has been the subject of research at Fred Hutch. While there is no cure for herpes yet, treatments have come a long way in helping suppress it. Medications can reduce symptoms and infectiousness of the disease, and it is possible that it can be cured in the future. Herpes can hide in nerve cells for a long time before becoming active, making it difficult to find a cure.