Research to Find Better Treatments, Vaccines and Cures for Herpes

Human herpesviruses are a family of pathogens that play an outsized role in inflicting pain and misery on people everywhere.

Herpes simplex type 1 is responsible for oral herpes, or cold sores. Highly contagious, HSV-1 is estimated to have infected 3.7 billion people, about two-thirds of all people under the age of 50. It can also cause genital herpes through oral sex.

Herpes simplex type 2 is the virus responsible for most genital herpes cases. HSV-2 causes recurrent outbreaks of small, painful blisters in a rash that may take 2-4 weeks or more to heal. It can be transmitted even when a person is asymptomatic. About 12 percent of the U.S. population aged 14-49 is infected, about 500 million throughout the world.

Symptoms of genital herpes can be eased with antiviral drugs. But there are no vaccinations against herpes. There is no cure.

Problems of this scope demand attention from the world’s top researchers. That’s why Fred Hutch scientists, with a wealth of expertise in virology, have made the study of human herpesviruses a priority.

Transmission electron micrograph (TEM) showing herpes simplex virons
Transmission electron micrograph (TEM) showing herpes simplex virons Getty Images

Studying Human Herpes

Fred Hutch scientists are studying human herpesviruses in hopes of finding better treatments, vaccines and cures. Teams of researchers are exploring the epidemiology of genital herpes. They use advanced microscopy and immunology to study where these viruses lurk in tissues and how they are controlled by immune cells that embed close to infection sites in the body. They want to learn what causes herpesviruses to reactivate and how antibodies and infection-fighting T cells control infections.

A Cure for Herpes?

Fred Hutch virologist Dr. Keith Jerome and staff scientist Dr. Martine Aubert have drawn worldwide attention for their work using gene therapy to target HSV, which is responsible for cold sores and genital herpes. The team has engineered a herpes gene-cutting enzyme that homes in on nerve clusters where the virus hides. In mice, this technique destroys up to 95% of latent virus. The researchers hope to be able to test this approach in humans after their preclinical studies are complete.

On Jan. 21, 2021, Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Thomas J. Lynch, Jr., holder of the Raisbeck Endowed Chair, interviewed Dr. Keith Jerome (pictured at right, with staff scientist Dr. Martine Aubert) about prospects for a gene therapy cure for herpes.

Improving Our Immune Response to Control Herpes

T cells embedded in tissues where latent HSV-2 hides are known to play a role in controlling the virus. Hutch scientists are also exploring how B cells, the antibody-making factories of the immune system, also work to keep the virus in check. Hutch researchers hope to build on this understanding to develop immunotherapies to control reactivation, reduce transmission to sexual partners, and design vaccines to prevent infection.

Basic Research on Herpes

The immune system is extremely complex, and Hutch research on how it responds to herpes has delivered surprising insights. Dr. Jennifer Lund discovered that, in response to genital herpes, a type of T cell thought to suppress inflammation will actually boost the immune response. Her team explores how these cells work to control the virus, particularly in mucosal tissues where infections begin — research that could help to develop a herpes vaccine. In another surprising discovery, Hutch researchers in the Corey Lab found that HSV-2 uses a small protein to help repair damaged nerves. Because the virus travels along nerves, it repairs them so it can spread infection to other tissues. The team is exploring whether this newly discovered (and rare) nerve growth factor might be harnessed to reduce nerve damage, known as neuropathy, that is often a side effect of chemotherapy in cancer patients.

Other Herpesviruses

Six other members of the herpesvirus family are responsible for many diseases — some familiar, some lesser-known. Hutch researchers have a deep level of expertise in this family of common viruses that can be particularly dangerous for people whose immune systems are compromised by HIV/AIDS or who are recovering from bone marrow or blood stem cell transplants for cancer.


Chickenpox, a highly contagious childhood rash, is caused by the varicella zoster virus. Reactivated, it causes herpes zoster, or shingles, mostly in those over 50. Pediatric and adult vaccines are available, respectively, to reduce dramatically the risk of coming down with chickenpox or shingles.


Cytomegalovirus, or human herpesvirus 5, can cause loss of vision or hearing, and poses a risk of brain damage to newborns infected during pregnancy. Yet it is also an extremely common virus that remains latent yet harmless in the human body for a lifetime. But it can reactivate and pose a lethal threat to patients who are immunocompromised, especially those recovering from transplants. For this reason, control of CMV has been a cornerstone of Fred Hutch virus research from its earliest days of bone marrow transplantation.

Epstein-Barr Virus

Epstein-Barr virus, or human herpesvirus 4, is so common that virtually everyone can expect to get infected in their lifetime. Long implicated in infectious mononucleosis, it has more recently been associated with the nerve-wasting disease multiple sclerosis. EVB is also associated with Burkitt lymphoma, a childhood cancer rare in the U.S. but endemic in parts of Africa. Fred Hutch researchers discovered a potent antibody that can block EBV, which could inform development of an Epstein-Barr virus vaccine.

Human Herpesvirus 6

Human herpesvirus 6 is responsible for roseola, a common and typically mild rash in infants. However, like cytomegalovirus, it can reactivate and pose a serious threat to patients recovering from bone marrow or blood stem cell transplants and has been a focus of research at Fred Hutch.

Kaposi Sarcoma-Associated Herpesvirus

Kaposi sarcoma-associated herpesvirus, or human herpesvirus 8, is a virus that in people whose immune systems are weakened is responsible for KS, the most common cancer afflicting people with HIV/AIDS. While antiviral drugs have sharply reduced its impact in the U.S., KS remains a serious threat to people living with HIV in Africa, and Fred Hutch researchers in Seattle and Uganda are collaborating on ways to treat it.

Our interdisciplinary scientists work together to understand, prevent and cure herpesvirus infections.

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