Gene therapy has nearly eliminated the oral herpes virus in lab animals, researchers report.
Using a gene editing technique, they achieved at least a 90% reduction in latent herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) in mice, which should be enough to prevent the infection from recurring.
"This is the first time that scientists have been able to go in and actually eliminate most of the herpes in a body," said senior study author Dr. Keith Jerome, a professor in the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
"We are targeting the root cause of the infection: the infected cells where the virus lies dormant and are the seeds that give rise to repeat infections," Jerome explained in a center news release.
In the study, the team used two sets of genetic scissors to damage the virus's DNA.
Most research on herpes has focused on suppressing the recurrence of painful symptoms. Jerome and his team said that this approach is completely different because it focuses on how to cure the disease.
"The big jump here is from doing this in test tubes to doing this in an animal," said Jerome, who also leads the virology division at University of Washington Medicine. "I hope 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."
However, not all animal research pans out in humans.
The findings were published Aug. 18 in the journal Nature Communications.
Two-thirds of people worldwide younger than 50 have HSV-1, according to the World Health Organization. The lifelong infection primarily causes cold sores.
The researchers are developing a similar genetic therapy for herpes simplex 2, which causes genital herpes. They said it's likely to take at least three years before human clinical trials can be conducted to test this approach.
"This is a curative approach for both oral and genital HSV infection," said study first author Martine Aubert, a senior staff scientist at Fred Hutchinson. "I see it going into clinical trials in the near future."
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more on oral herpes.