Is There a Cure for Herpes?

Why the virus is treatable but not curable

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Right now genital herpes and oral herpes are only treatable, not curable. However, that may not always be the case. There are several avenues of research that are showing promise. These include micro-RNA treatments and immunotherapy for herpes.

Why Curing Herpes Is So Difficult

Herpes behaves in a way that makes it very difficult to attempt a cure. It is possible to prevent outbreaks with suppressive therapy .

People can reduce the pain of an outbreak with conventional or alternative treatments. However, developing treatments is very different than knocking the virus entirely out of a person's body.

When herpes infections aren't active, the virus hides out in the cells of the nervous system. Between outbreaks, the infection is considered to be latent. Latent herpes infections are effectively invisible to drugs and the immune system. That's where the problem comes in. During active infections, some of the hidden virus "wakes up" to do its dirty work. That virus can be addressed through treatment. However, as long as any herpes virus remains hidden, it's impossible for treatment to lead to a full cure.

Will There Ever Be a Cure for Herpes? 

Research is still in its early days. That's not to say that people shouldn't have hope. It's just that even in the very best of circumstances, it takes years to go from an in vitro solution that works in the lab to a safe and effective drug that works in the human body.

Furthermore, not all treatments that work in the lab work equally well, or at all, in people. That means that even an extremely promising early article is not a guarantee of a future cure.

Is There Really No Current Herpes Cure?

One of the most passionate questions being asked is whether there will ever be a cure for herpes.

Many people are frustrated because they believe that a cure exists. They're convinced their doctors don't know about it or are hiding the cure from them.

In part, these beliefs are due to the large number of fraudulent STD treatments. There are a number of fake herpes cures that are advertised on the internet, which can give people false hope. However, it also may partially be because we live in a society where herpes is so stigmatized that not even doctors want to talk about it. In addition, sometimes doctors really do have incorrect or incomplete information.

That said, people shouldn't be afraid that they're missing out on a hidden cure for herpes. Herpes is a huge problem. If someone developed a herpes cure, they would probably win a Nobel prize. 

Addressing Latent Herpes Infections

In 2008, researchers from Duke University believed that they found the part of the viral genome that codes for the proteins that allow the oral herpes virus to hide out during latent periods. These coding instructions are known as micro-RNA. The scientists thought that they might be able to use micro-RNA research to develop a drug that turns off these viral brakes. That would have allowed the virus to come out of dormancy once and for all.

Fully activating the virus would, in turn, allow the virus to be thoroughly eradicated by antiviral treatment with a drug such as acyclovir.

In 2015, the Duke researchers were able to identify other factors that are related to latency. Unfortunately, they're still a long way from moving their micro-RNA research into humans. That said, other researchers are also exploring methods to improve herpes outcomes through changing the process of latency. Not all of them are aiming towards a cure. Some are, instead, looking for a way to keep the virus latent permanently. That's something that could both eliminate outbreaks and vastly reduce the risk of transmission.

Immnotherapy for Herpes

Another important avenue of herpes treatment and cure research is immunotherapy. Several companies are developing therapeutic vaccines for herpes. These are vaccines that wouldn't prevent herpes. Instead, the goal is for them to help the body's immune system keep an infection under control.

Understanding Science as a Process

Drug and vaccine development are long, difficult processes. They involve many years of work and many wrong turns, with no guarantee of success. In no way does the lack of a herpes cure mean that doctors aren't looking for one. Unfortunately, every disease presents different challenges.

One clear example of this is why scientists have been able to develop an HPV vaccine but not a vaccine for HIV. Developing an effective vaccine is far more difficult than just identifying the pathogen that causes a disease and knowing how it spreads. It requires figuring out a way to get the immune system to react strongly enough against that pathogen to fight if off when someone is exposed. 

HPV was a good target for vaccination. Why? It had already been shown that many people's immune systems are capable of fighting off HPV infections on their own. Most people who become infected with HPV will clear the infection within a few years, with no help from a doctor or drugs. This gave strong evidence that, in theory, a vaccine against HPV could be made to work. It did. After several years of research, doctors figured out which HPV proteins were effective at stimulating the immune system. They then used that knowledge to develop not one but three vaccines.

In contrast, the search for an HIV vaccine has been far longer and far less successful. Scientists have spent many years, and many millions of dollars, trying to find a vaccine that will effectively prevent HIV. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that they will ever be able to do so. Unlike people with HPV, people with HIV do not generally fight off an infection on their own. This means that there's no proof that the body would be capable of getting rid of an HIV infection. That's true even if you could successfully stimulate the immune system to react against the virus with a vaccine.

A Word from Verywell

Science is rarely straightforward. We may have a long way to go in finding a cure for herpes. Still, there are lots of reasons to have hope and patience. Many researchers are pursuing the goal of a herpes cure, as well as new treatments. It's just a process that takes time. 

Sources:

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Bernstein DI, Wald A, Warren T, Fife K, Tyring S, Lee P, Van Wagoner N, Magaret A, Flechtner JB, Tasker S, Chan J, Morris A, Hetherington S. Therapeutic Vaccine for Genital Herpes Simplex Virus-2 Infection: Findings from a Randomized Trial. J Infect Dis. 2017 Jan 30. doi: 10.1093/infdis/jix004.

Pan D, Flores O, Umbach JL, Pesola JM, Bentley P, Rosato PC, Leib DA, Cullen BR, Coen DM. A Neuron-Specific Host MicroRNA Targets Herpes Simplex Virus-1 ICP0 Expression and Promotes Latency. Cell Host Microbe. 2014 Apr 9;15(4):446-56. doi: 10.1016/j.chom.2014.03.004.

Thompson RL, Sawtell NM. Therapeutic Implications of New Insights into the Critical Role of VP16 in Initiating the Earliest Stages of HSV Reactivation from Latency. Future Med Chem. 2010 Jul;2(7):1099-105. doi: 10.4155/fmc.10.197.

Wang J, Quake SR. RNA-Guided Endonuclease Provides a Therapeutic Strategy to Cure Latent Herpesviridae Infection. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Sep 9;111(36):13157-62. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1410785111.

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