New treatment principle could cure herpes simplex virus infection

New drug

Robert Klatt

Herpes simplex virus infection still cannot be cured. A new drug that activates all of the herpes viruses in the body could change that.

Würzburg (Germany). In Germany around 90 percent of people are infected with the herpes simplex virus. the Herpesinfektion usually occurs before the age of six and cannot be cured by medicine. Most of the time, however, the virus is in a dormant state, so it doesn’t cause any symptoms. However, when the host’s immune system is weakened by an infectious disease, stress, or fever, the herpes viruses become active.

For most people, the first symptoms of a herpes outbreak include tingling, a slight burning sensation, and a feeling of tightness in the face near the mouth. The first cold sores appear after a few hours. These are mostly on the lips, but they can also appear on the nose, eyes and buttocks and cause itching and pain there. These symptoms are very uncomfortable for most of those affected, but not dangerous. By special herpes creams the duration and intensity can be significantly reduced. In some risk groups, including those with HIV, newborns and patients undergoing chemotherapy, herpes can also cause life-threatening complications. Science has therefore been looking for ways to cure herpes for a long time.

New starting points for therapy

“In the first few hours after infection, it is decided in each individual infected cell whether the virus will actively multiply or go into dormant state,” explains Lars Dölken from the Department of Virology at the University of Würzburg. The researchers therefore want to understand which factors influence this process in order to find new starting points for a therapy against the herpes simplex virus.

Herpes simplex virus DNA analyzed

According to a publication by Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), the researchers first examined what happens when the herpes simplex virus enters the human body. The focus was on understanding how the virus protects itself from the immune system and how it takes control of individual cells. “As soon as the herpes pathogen has penetrated a human cell, it smuggles its genetic material into the cell nucleus,” explains Dölken. If the virus is in a dormant state there, it cannot be recognized and fought by the immune system.

Herpes simplex virus multiplies in infected cells

The herpes simplex virus present in the cell nucleus can then use the molecular processes to form RNA molecules from the genetic information in the DNA. These RNA molecules control, among other things, which proteins are formed in the cell and how it grows. By controlling the virus through these processes, it can produce its own proteins in large quantities and multiply on a massive scale. “The cell is ultimately destroyed, releasing thousands of new virus particles,” explains Dölken.

Activation of all herpes simplex viruses

As was already known, herpes simplex virus continues to remain dormant in human cells after infection. The scientists at the University of Würzburg therefore have a long-term plan to develop a drug that activates all cells infected with herpes at the same time in the event of an acute infection. “The immune system could then fight the herpes viruses effectively with the help of antiviral drugs. The latency would disappear and we would have cured the patient of the virus, ”said Dölken. The team can only answer whether and when a corresponding drug will actually come onto the market after further studies.

Effect also with other forms of herpes?

According to the researchers, this treatment principle could also work for other forms of herpes. A total of eight types of herpes viruses are known in humans, including the Epstein-Barr virus, which there is evidence that it causes tumor diseases. The diseases triggered by herpes viruses also include genital herpes, chickenpox, shingles and glandular fever.

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