Why is There Still No Cure for Herpes?

Herpes is a widespread virus that has been around for centuries, yet there is still no cure. This is due to the nature of the virus, which can hide in nerve cells for long periods of time before reactivating the infection. Pharmaceutical companies are eager to discover a cure, but the research process is lengthy and expensive. In the meantime, people infected with herpes must manage outbreaks when they occur and use antiviral medications to reduce the severity and frequency of symptoms.

The common cold and herpes share a similar trait: they are both viruses that cannot be cured. People infected with herpes are infected for life, and there is no preventive treatment such as a vaccine. Antiviral medications, such as acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir, may help reduce the severity and frequency of symptoms, but they cannot cure the infection. Genital herpes is a major health problem worldwide, with social consequences that can have a profound effect on sexual and reproductive health.

No company has successfully developed a market-ready herpes vaccine; however, several HSV vaccines have undergone phase I and II trials. At this time, sores and other symptoms of herpes are treated with one of several antiviral medications. Pharmaceutical companies are eager to discover a cure for herpes, but first they must overcome an extremely lengthy and expensive research process. The first step will be to repeat their experiments with HSV-2 in guinea pigs, which, unlike mice, experience natural reactivations of herpes virus infections, just like humans.

Latent herpes viruses hide in groups of nerve cells called ganglia, and researchers have found that some nodes are harder to reach than others. Until the herpes cure becomes a reality, you can continue to use current herpes treatments to control outbreaks. Five years ago, the team reported that they had damaged the genes of 2% to 4% of the herpes virus in infected mice. With strategic care, you can prevent future herpes outbreaks and avoid the painful and uncomfortable process of treating lesions after they appear.

Acyclovir is an antiviral medication that treats infections caused by the herpes simplex virus, including genital herpes. Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV) is mainly transmitted by oral contact and causes an oral herpes infection, sometimes causing painful sores in or around the mouth (“cold sores”). If you have any of the symptoms of genital herpes, such as red, cracked sores around your genitals or rectum, ask your doctor to test your blood for HSV antibodies. Currently, there is no cure for HSV-1 or HSV-2, although people with both types of herpes can take antiviral medications such as Valtrex to control their symptoms and reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to their partners.

Advances in herpes cure research over the past five years are largely due to a series of improvements in gene-editing tools. Jerome estimates that there are at least three years to go before these experiments lead to the first human trials of gene therapy to cure herpes.