Genital herpes: could a cure be on the horizon?

A new breakthrough in research into the use of gene editing against the herpes simplex virus have offered new insight into a possible cure.

According to the World Health Organisation, around half a billion people are currently living with genital herpes. While not widely discussed, it is an incredibly common affliction which manifests to varying degrees of severity, and causes many to suffer from the physical and mental discomfort of suffering from recurrent symptoms for which treatments are unable to promise any lasting improvement or permanent solutions.

However, years of strong scientific research into the applications gene therapy holds for the herpes simplex virus have culminated in a possible breakthrough for curing, rather than simply managing or suppressing, the illness.

This represents a momentous advancement in the world of research, and for countless individuals across the globe. While experiments have thus far been contained to HSV-1, which is far more common and typically limited to the appearance of cold sores around the mouth, plans to incorporate HSV-2 into the next stage of testing – and to finally conceive of a cure for genital herpes – are already underway.

What Is Our Current Understanding of the Herpes Simplex Virus?

There are two variations of the herpes simplex virus ; HSV-1, which can cause sores on the mouth and genitals, and HSv-2, which is transmitted through sexual contact and typically presents through itchy or painful blisters around the genitals and anus, sores, painful urination and, in female patients, changes to vaginal discharge.

While, in most cases, it is not generally considered a serious illness, genital herpes has so far remained incurable. The most effective treatment is currently a drug named Aciclovir, which can be taken in higher doses for acute ‘flair ups’, or at a lower dosage in order to suppress further outbreaks.

Despite the distinctive symptoms, the virus is commonly confused with genital warts, another sexually transmitted infection, which can make it difficult to find the right palliative treatment with which to manage and suppress the symptoms.

Anyone concerned about any possible changes to their sexual health can, however, order a herpes test kit online, which offers accurate results from only a small urine sample, and allows for more discretion than an in-person visit to a sexual health clinic permits.

What Does the Research Say About a Potential Cure?

At its core, the term ‘gene therapy’ comprises a number of techniques that isolate and utilise particular genes with the capacity to eliminate the presence of certain diseases within the body.

At the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle, researchers have spent the last ten years investigating the potential to target the herpes virus by prompting infected cells to release “gene cutting enzymes”, which eliminate the virus.

Initially, the results were minimal, but enough to encourage researchers to continue to modify their approach. Now, they are able to eliminate over 90% of the virus, which they believe to be sufficient to prevent the virus from re-multiplying.

So far, these trials are not yet at the stage at which trials on human subjects can begin, but the results offer remarkable insight into a future in which herpes is curable, rather than a lifelong condition.

What Does This Mean?

Despite the significant step forward in our understanding of the herpes simplex virus, it will be at least a few more years before human trials can begin, which means that a cure for the virus is not yet imminent.

Of course, even in the event that a cure does become available, the risk of sexually transmitted infections will not be mitigated entirely, and continuing to adhere to the same habits of safe sex and sexual hygiene – both for oneself, and one’s sexual partners – will remain essential.

Condoms provide the most effective means of protection against the spread of sexually transmitted infections. While other contraceptives offer an effective defence against unwanted pregnancies, STIs are typically spread through genital contact or the exchange of bodily fluids, which means that condoms should be used even when penetrative sex does not take place.

The Bottom Line

Never before have researchers come so close to ascertaining a definitive cure for the herpes simplex virus, and offering hope to millions of people around the globe currently suffering from the physical and emotional turmoil wrought by genital herpes.

While it will take some time for us to learn more about the potential for gene therapy to cure HSV-1 and HSV-2 within humans, this new advancement marks a significant step forward within the world of medicine, and opens up the door for improving the quality of life for many patients, and alleviating the spread of the herpes simplex virus around the world.

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