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Discovery May One Day Lead to Herpes Vaccine

Understanding specialized cells could be key to preventing genital herpes, researchers say

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He added that doctors once thought herpes, which lies dormant in nerve cells, would reawaken and travel up the nerve endings to the skin surface where it would cause painful sores, and that it would take a couple of days for the body to respond and fight off each new assault.

He said the new research shows that such outbreaks are the exception, rather than the rule. The specialized CD8 cells in the skin seem to do a pretty good job of keeping the virus under control.

"It seems to me that if we improve their job, and if we study them and ask the questions -- How do we give them more help? How do we make them live longer? How do we make them function better? How do we increase their number? -- we may be able to develop an effective herpes vaccine," Corey said.

A vaccine against herpes would be a significant achievement. Aside from abstinence, there's no surefire way to prevent herpes infections. Condoms can reduce the risk of transmission, although the virus can still be shed from skin areas that condoms don't cover.

Experts caution that although the new finding is promising, a vaccine is still likely to be a long way off.

"They have good correlative evidence" that the specialized CD8 cells in skin keep the virus at bay, Cullen said. He added, however, that the research doesn't prove that boosting these cells would prevent infections.

He said it will take many more studies to demonstrate that -- if, in fact, it's true.

"It's time to take it to the next level," Cullen said.

As for cold sores (or fever blisters) on the lips or around the mouth -- also caused by the herpes simplex virus -- the researchers said that although it seems logical that those same CD8 cells might be at work, they didn't analyze it in this study.

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