UW News

February 7, 2002

New studies seek better treatment, prevention for genital herpes

Walter Neary
HS News & Community Relations

Researchers at the UW are testing to see if a mainstay of human health — the body’s immune system — can better battle one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases than conventional therapies.

Genital herpes is one of the most prevalent STDs in the world. In the United States, 22 percent — more than one-fifth — of the population over the age of 12 has infection with herpes virus type 2 (HSV-2), the virus that most commonly causes genital herpes.

While many people with HSV-2 suffer from recurring genital sores, others are asymptomatic. Even those who do not have any symptoms can still spread the disease to their sexual partners. Most people acquire genital herpes at a time when their partner does not have symptoms of an outbreak, but the virus is still present on the skin.

The most serious adverse consequence of genital herpes is infection of the newborn that results in a high proportion of babies dying or having brain damage. Genital herpes can also make it easier to transmit or acquire HIV, because the sores allows the AIDS virus access to the body.

The UW has been one of the leading centers of herpes research for the last 20 years. Its Virology Research Clinic is beginning two new studies of novel approaches to the treatment and prevention of HSV-2 infection.

“In the last decade, we have made large strides in our understanding of how the immune system works — how the body defends itself against herpes. Now, it’s time to put that knowledge to use and to try novel therapies that rely on this better understanding of the immune system,” says Dr. Anna Wald, director of the Virology Research Clinic. She is an assistant professor of allergy and infectious diseases in the UW School of Medicine and of epidemiology in the School of Public Health and Community Medicine.

Treatment: Resiquimod, an investigational medication produced by 3M in collaboration with Eli Lilly and Company, represents a new class of drugs that are immune-effect modifiers. Another compound in the family of immune response modifiers has already been approved for treatment of genital warts — an infection that operates similarly to genital herpes.

Currently, antiviral therapies for genital herpes work by interfering with the viruses’ ability to reproduce itself. While these therapies are effective, they work only when patients are taking the daily medication. When the medication is stopped, the herpes infection returns. The hope is that Resiquimod will produce a local boost in immunity and help the body fight the infection. Preliminary studies have suggested that Resiquimod lengthens the time between outbreaks. The current study will evaluate whether the medication can also control the frequency of viral shedding, an important determinant of how often herpes is spread.

Vaccine: Researchers are also conducting a trial with a new experimental compound from the Antigenics company. This is a first trial in humans of a compound designed to stimulate immune responses towards HSV. Both people without HSV infection as well as those with genital herpes who are receiving suppressive therapy with antiviral drugs will be eligible to enroll in this study.

The compound contains two components. One of them is a portion of the outer coat of the herpes virus, to which people with certain genetic makeup are able to mount a strong immune response. The other is a novel vaccine adjuvant, a specific class of proteins known as heat-shock proteins, which direct and stimulate the immune response. Eventually, this compound may lead to development of a therapeutic as well as a preventive vaccine for HSV, according to researchers.

Both of the studies are being conducted at the UW Virology Research Clinic located at 1001 Broadway, suite 320, in Seattle. Study participants will receive compensation for time and travel. Confidentiality is strictly maintained at all times. For more information please call 206-720-4340 or see http://depts.washington.edu/herpes.