Could New Gene Therapy Be the Solution for Herpes Simplex Virus 1?

While gene editing may seem like science fiction to most, it’s already here. In medicine, it is called gene therapy and experiments are already underway to assess its effectiveness in the treatment of multiple conditions.

Gene therapy could be the answer to eliminating some common STD types. A recent study proves the effectiveness of gene editing for the elimination of the herpes simplex virus in animals.

Herpes Simplex: Taking Steps Towards Finding a Cure

While herpes isn’t considered the most severe sexually transmitted infection, it is acquired for life. At the time being, there’s no treatment for it.

There are medicines that can shorten the duration of outbreaks or prevent them altogether. The virus, however, remains in the body in its latent state. If the immune system is weakened for one reason or another, a herpes outbreak can occur.

Most people who have genital herpes will experience no symptoms as the body is capable of supressing the virus. Sometimes, mild symptoms could be experienced but these are so atypical that they could be attributed to any other cause.

The problem is that the virus can be passed on to others, even when it isn’t causing symptoms.

World Health Organization (WHO) statistics show that genital herpes affects 491 million people aged 15 to 49 throughout the world. The prevalence of the infection is highest in Africa, followed by the Americas. According to studies, a third of these people will experience no symptoms whatsoever.

A Herpes Treatment Breakthrough?

In August 2020, the results of an interesting clinical trial were published in the Nature Communications journal.

While the study focused on oral herpes or HSV-1 (genital herpes is caused by HSV-2), it demonstrates a very important new prospect for the potential resolution of the herpes issue.

Researchers used genetic editing to damage the HSV-1 virus and its DNA. In addition, the scientists “modified” the delivery vehicle that the virus uses to reach infected cells in the body.

The results were astounding – at least 90 per cent of the latent herpes simplex virus was completely eliminated. This is the very first time that such an accomplishment has been made possible through gene therapy.

If such treatments could be developed, they will be used to target the root cause of the infection rather than the symptoms experienced. In a sense, a complete cure for herpes simplex will be discovered and implemented effectively.

Up till now, research has focused most extensively on the suppression of the herpes outbreaks. There is very limited work in terms of getting rid of the virus altogether.

When Could We Expect the Development of a Herpes Cure?

The first genetic editing experiments occurred in a test tube.

Now, research has been taken to the next level. Breakthrough has been achieved after researchers completed an animal study.

In their trial, researchers found out that the “subjects” had a 92 per cent reduction in the availability of herpes simplex 1 virus in their superior cervical ganglia. This is the nerve tissue where the virus “hides” and remains dormant until becoming re-activated.

It’s also interesting to point out that the gene therapy has no negative effect on healthy tissues and cellular DNA within the body.

As of now, the reduction in the viral load has remained unchanged for at least a month after the completion of the study. Thus, the trial gives hope that an eventual cure for humans could be based on the same mechanism in the future.

Obviously, we’re still far away from human trials and the eventual development of a therapy approved by the respective health authorities. Gene therapy, however, is showing a possible new direction. While suppressing symptoms is a good start (much like in the case of the HIV virus), discovering a way to eliminate the viral load altogether is the ultimate goal.

According to the brief written to introduce the trial, the researchers are pursuing a very similar approach for the treatment of HSV-2. Since the two viruses are members of the same family, chances are that genetic editing will produce a similar positive result in the case of genital herpes.

Managing Herpes Now

Until a cure is developed, it’s essential to remain vigilant and protect yourself from an eventual infection.

Testing for genital herpes is readily available in Singapore. Several different testing methodologies are utilised and you should definitely get in touch with a clinician to understand the specifics. The Shim Clinic team is one that could answer your questions and direct you towards the most appropriate screening option.

Apart from getting tested regularly, it’s also important to embrace the practices that ensure effective herpes prevention.

Abstaining from sexual activity and being in a committed monogamous relationship are two of the biggest preventative factors. It’s also a good idea to check yourself and your partner from lesions. In the event of seeing anything unusual in the genital region, schedule a consultation with a physician as soon as possible.

Barrier contraception will also reduce the risk of contracting STD/STIs significantly. Do have condoms handy and make good use of them.

Do you have questions about genital herpes? Are you concerned that you may have become infected? Visiting a STD Clinic is the first step. Contact Shim Clinic to have your questions answered or pay us a visit every day of the week during working hours.