To be filed under “hey this would be really great actually!” are the findings of a new study that brings us meaningfully closer to a world without herpes.
One of the few differences between the two types of Herpes simplex virus, HSV-1 and HSV-2, is euphemization. We dub weepy open sores on our faces caused by an easily transmissible and recurring, incurable virus “cold-sores,” while we behave as though similar sores on our unmentionables caused by the same virus (or its genetically very-similar sibling) is the most unmentionable thing that could ever be unmentioned. It’s tragic really that Geraldo Rivera can still have a public career after posting semi-nude selfie tweets, while so much valuable indignity is spent on “my cold-sores are totes different than the zomg gross herpes on your junk!”
As Dr. Jen Gunter (an Ob/Gyn who was an infectious diseases fellow at University of Kansas) points out, the key difference between HSV-1 (usually the culprit of mouth herpes) and HSV-2 (usually the culprit of genital herpes) lies in the recurrence risk of each “above the belt” or “below the belt.” While your mouth can be infected by HSV-2 and your junk can be infected by HSV-1, HSV-1 prefers to set up permanent residence in the breezy northern climes of your trigeminal ganglia (nerve bundles near the ear) while HSV-2 is more suited to the southern tropics of your sacral ganglia (nerve bundle at the base of the spine).
Now while we may not yet have the cure for Geraldo, let’s be cheered at news that we’re a step closer to a world where humans (who haven’t already become herpes casualties) will be able to dodge the bullet entirely on herpes infections to either their mouths or junk! This step closer is all due to a new test vaccine that has successfully proven protective against the live herpes virus in mice.
One method for vaccine creation, live attenuated vaccines (LAV), centers on inclusion of a virus that is “living” (although viruses occupy a bit of a fuzzy area between living and non-living, so “living” is a bit of a stretch) but that has been rendered Mostly Harmless. Being Mostly Harmless means the virus won’t bludgeon you with sick, but allows your immune system to mount a defense in such a way that when/if the Real McCoy virus shows its ugly viral envelope proteins, your immune system will pounce at lightning speed and obliterate the offending critter with no warning or niceties. Blam.
Sounds simple right? So why haven’t smarty-pants scientists already come up with a herpes vaccine? I mean we’ve had vaccines knocking the daylights out of polio, smallpox and measles for decades, and more recently vaccines for chickenpox and HPV.
It seems science has been fighting the good fight against herpes for years, but prior herpes vaccine candidates were centered on a herpes protein called gD-2, a viral protein that’s “like a loud person in a room,” according to Dr. Betsy Herold, one of the study coauthors. And we all know what that loud bleating person in the room is like, making it so you can’t entirely focus on what the hottie you’re trying to hold a conversation with is saying.
Dr. Herold says the problem with those earlier vaccine candidates was that the immune system may have been overly focused on Obnoxious Loud Guy gD-2 and overlooking the rest of the room full of viral particles. So, like the science whiz-kids they are, Dr. Herold’s team came up with a different approach with a vaccine consisting of a weakened herpes virus lacking Loud Obnoxious Guy gD-2 protein. When mice got a dose of this vaccine, their immune systems “ginned up” in response and allowed them to avoid infection by the real deal herpes virus.
Now if only Dr. Herold could come up with a vaccine against the literal Loud Obnoxious Guy at the party — and Geraldo — we would be the first in line for clinical trials.