Herpes simplex viruses types I and II are extremely persistent viruses that lie dormant in the body's nervous system long after the initial infection has ended. While a cure for herpes is not in the immediate future, scientists are exploring many types of herpes research. In recent years, herpes research has focused on developing a vaccine for those not yet infected, stopping the reinfections that occur when the virus lies dormant in a host, and developing a cure that will eradicate the virus in individuals who are already infected. To do this, researchers are attempting to identify the substances the virus needs to survive and identifying the mechanisms that make herpes viruses so persistent. Once scientists learn enough about how the herpes virus works in the body of a host, a herpes cure might be possible.
There are two main types of herpes viruses being studied. Herpes simplex virus type I (HSV-I) is a type of herpes virus that causes oral sores, while herpes simplex virus type II (HSV-II) is a type of herpes virus that causes genital sores and lesions. In the U.S. alone, 20 percent of the population is infected with one or both types of the herpes virus. While there is no shortage of researchers trying to find a vaccine or a cure, there is a shortage of funds necessary to complete the research. Since the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH) only funds about 8 percent of the applications it receives, researchers depend mostly on private funding.
One type of herpes research is focusing on preventing the virus from infecting individuals and controlling the spread of the herpes virus. Traditional vaccines are made from weakened or dead viruses that stimulate the human immune response. These types of vaccines are not effective against persistent viruses like herpes. Researchers are developing subunit vaccines, which are made from one piece of viral protein. Subunit vaccines are safer than traditional vaccines because they cannot reproduce and cause the illness they are designed to prevent. Other vaccines may interrupt viral DNA instructions that produce a substance that weakens the host cell's defenses.
Another type of herpes research is attempting to control the spread of the virus through the development of vaginal suppositories. These topical microbicides contain substances that could kill the virus and prevent infection when used prior to engaging in sexual intercourse with an infected person. Currently the only way to control the spread of herpes is through suppressive drugs like acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir.
Researchers believe that the only way to kill the herpes virus in an already infected individual is to activate it, wait until it comes out of hiding in the dorsal ganglia nerve cells, and then kill it. Some herpes research is studying which genes are responsible for viral activity. The theory goes that once the virus is activated, it can be treated with drugs like acyclovir. The problem lies in how to activate all of the dormant virus at the same time. When the herpes virus lies dormant in the body, parts of it activate at different times, making it impossible to treat the entire virus simultaneously.