Discovery May One Day Lead to Herpes Vaccine
Understanding specialized cells could be key to preventing genital herpes, researchers say
The specialized CD8 cells also made other proteins to summon backup cells to the site to help tamp down the attack. And they didn't seem to make chemical signals that sound the all-clear, a message to immune responders that it's time to leave the area, which may explain why they stick around in the skin.
"We actually showed they were a very unique population of cells," said study senior author Dr. Lawrence Corey, a virologist and president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle. "They can stay in the skin for extended periods of time, they appear to have memory, they appear to have the kind of markers that go in response to a specific infection."
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.