Researchers developing gene targeting therapy to combat herpes

February 4th, 2009 - 4:47 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Feb 4 (IANS) A new gene targeting therapy is being developed by researchers to combat herpes simplex virus.The approach uses a specially designed RNA enzyme to inhibit strains of the herpes simplex virus (HSV), by disabling a gene responsible for producing a protein involved in the maturation and release of viral particles in an infected cell.

The technique was successful in experiments with mice and rabbits, but further research is required before it can be attempted in people infected with herpes.

David Bloom, a virologist at the University of Floria College of Medicine (UFCOM), led the interdisciplinary research team investigating the new therapy.

The HSV-1 strain causes cold sores or fever blisters around the mouth, genital herpes, a deadly but rare type of encephalitis, and keratitis, a scarring of the cornea that leads to vision loss. HSV-2 is the more common cause of genital herpes.

Existing herpes treatments work because the active ingredients target viral building blocks, and become incorporated into the virus’ genetic material and shut down its ability to make copies of itself. In so doing, the drugs limit the severity of herpes lesions.

“They work pretty well, and they keep the disease in check, but there’s no real cure,” said Alfred Lewin, PhD, a molecular geneticist on the research team.

The UF team came up with a way to cut the virus’ RNA to prevent reactivation. By designing special enzymes called hammerhead ribozymes, the researchers were able to target a so-called “late” gene that releases its protein product relatively late after infection.

With late genes, partial corruption of the genetic material is sufficient to shut down virus production, as opposed to “early” genes, which would require total inactivation to hinder the process, said an UFCOM release.

“What I think is remarkable with the technology is its versatility - you can design ribozymes that will be effective against any pathogenic virus you’re interested in inhibiting,” said John M. Burke, professor of microbiology at the University of Vermont, who has studied the use of ribozymes for treating viral infections.

The work was published in the Journal of Virology.

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