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Healthier Together: Herpes cure on the horizon

SEATTLE — A cure for the herpes simplex virus could be on the horizon after researchers at the Fred Hutch Cancer Center in Seattle say they’ve narrowed down a way to deal with the disease.

For Healthier Together, KIRO 7′s Ranji Sinha took a look at the disease with a strong stigma attached to it, a stigma that could go away if a cure comes to pass.

Dr. Keith Jerome is a professor and lead researcher at Fred Hutch who has worked on COVID-19, HIV, and other viruses. He admits he’s acutely aware of the concern around herpes.

“People know when you get infected. These viruses -- you don’t get rid of them, they’re for life. There’s been a certain fatalism around it,” Dr. Jerome said.

Dr. Jerome says phone calls and email inquiries often come into his office, not from other researchers, but from the average person who may be infected.

“There’s not a cure yet that everybody can go out and get, but we’re getting closer to a cure,” Dr. Jerome said.

His lab is one of the few working to find a cure, and since he may soon have an answer for the virus, Dr. Jerome says he answers all the calls.

The progress is attributed to gene editing. Enough progress, in fact, for Fred Hutch virologists to say their treatment eliminated 90% of the herpes virus for both oral and genital herpes.

“We’re going for that 99 or 99.9%, we’re always improving this… ten or fifteen years ago, when we started down this path and started to talk about an idea for a cure for herpes simplex infections, people thought we were crazy,” Dr. Jerome said.

Their treatment also reduced how much virus a person can release once infected, which could limit the spread. Limiting the spread is key, considering the World Health Organization estimates that 3.7 billion people under the age of 50 have HSV-1, which causes oral herpes, and an estimated 491 million people worldwide ages 15-49 have HSV-2, which causes genital herpes.

The sheer number of people infected guarantees that Dr. Jerome will get a massive amount of calls hoping for a cure.

“About half or more of all the people in the world have HSV-1, HSV-2, or both. That’s a huge number of people… now we’ve progressed from ‘you’re crazy’ to ‘when can I sign up and why wasn’t it ready yesterday,’” Dr. Jerome said.

According to Dr. Jerome, herpes could be called a hide-out virus since it infects and lies dormant on nerve cells, periodically activating to cause symptoms.

Dr. Jerome’s gene therapy works by inserting gene-editing molecules into the bloodstream, where it then finds and damages the herpes virus.

That damage allows the immune system to spot the virus and eliminate it when it otherwise would not see it.

“That’s what we’ve shown in our clinical models, that we can actually eliminate a huge fraction of the virus,” Dr. Jerome said.

Fred Hutchinson teams are looking forward to further testing and trials for this possible herpes treatment. Researchers also know HSV-2 creates a greater risk of HIV infection, and HSV-1 has been linked to dementia, so the stakes for a cure are relatively high.

Getting rid of the disease and infection is just as important as eliminating the stigma surrounding the disease. Since the disease is often sexually transmitted and people worry about infecting others, Dr. Jerome says that eliminating that worry could have a huge impact on people’s lives. Infected people would no longer have to live with uncertainty, concern, and symptoms.

“If we can change that, then we can really make an enormous difference, and hopefully, it will be an absolute cure. That’s the aspirational goal,” Dr. Jerome said.

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