SALT LAKE CITY -- There's about a 60 percent chance that someone has it. It causes blisters and scabs, sometimes even bleeding and almost always pain. It can infect your fingers, eyes, gums, lips, and even hair follicles. And it's incurable.
Alright, so the cheap melodrama oversells it a little; it's the virus that causes cold sores, herpes simplex-1, or HSV-1. Probably everyone has seen its effects, and half of Americans have experienced the embarrassment and inconvenience it brings. It's a serious disease, and some researchers at the University of Utah have taken a step toward understanding how it works.
Or rather, understanding a little bit better how we work with the virus. A study by Dr. John D. Kriesel, published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, shows a strong genetic component to the visible symptom of HSV-1 infection - those nasty little blisters around the lips and mouth we call cold sores.
The virus actually hijacks our very cells turns the machinery that keeps us going into a factory for itself. It sneaks into the cell, throws it's DNA into the nucleus and says ‘Get to work.' Our own genes are used against us and for the virus. Exactly what genes are involved in that invasion is what Dr. Kriesel and team are studying.
In a lonely, out of the way place along every human's 21st chromosome sits a gene that doesn't seem to do much of anything except to determine who's going to have to suffer a cold sore and who isn't. If you have certain versions of the gene, you're likely to get sores. If you have certain others, you're likely protected from them.
Herpes, both the cold sore and the much more serious genital variety, is incurable, and once you have it you'll have it for life. But this discovery could have important implications in finding a cure. Currently, treatment is limited to antiviral medications and a few topical ointments. But these don't do much except help with symptoms and make a return of those symptoms less likely.
"The C21orf91 gene seems to play a role in cold sore susceptibility, and if this data is confirmed among a larger, unrelated population, this discovery could have important implications for the development of drugs that affect cold sore frequency," said Dr. Kriesel.
Figuring out a cure for HSV-1 could help a lot of other things as well. It not only causes cold sores, but is implicated in a whole lot of other nasty diseases as well, ranging from gum infections and eyelid infections to meningitis and the facial paralysis known as Bell's Palsy. HSV-1 has even been shown to have a role in the onset of Alzheimer's disease.
With any luck, and some ingenuity from researchers like those at the U., we will be that much closer to understanding and preventing some of these afflictions as well.
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