April 2, 1998
Vol. 17, No. 13

current issue
archive / search

    Herpes virus: Disease is possible cure

    Most people know herpes as the virus responsible for causing cold sores. At best, it causes occasional cold-sore flare-ups; at worst, in the form of herpes simplex II, it can travel to the brain or be transmitted to newborns and be fatal. One thing is certain: once a person contracts the virus, it is a lifelong companion. There is no cure.

    But now researchers are examining the flip side of herpes: its potential to cure other diseases. Scientists are beginning to investigate its uses as a vector for gene therapy in the treatment of certain cancers.

    The virus and its potential uses are the topic of this year's Ryerson Lecture, to be presented by Bernard Roizman at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, April 16, in Max Palevsky Cinema, Ida Noyes Hall. Roizman, the world's leading authority on herpes, is the Joseph Regenstein Distinguished Service Professor in Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology and Chairman of the Committees on Genetics and Virology. The lecture is free and open to the public.

    Roizman has been studying the herpes virus since the 1950s and is responsible for much of what we know about the virus today. His current work -- on ways the virus could be used to deliver therapeutic genes to cancers in the brain, head and neck -- will be discussed in the Ryerson Lecture, "Herpes Simplex Viruses: Our Lifetime Unwanted Guests and a String of Pearls."

    "The 'string of pearls' in the title refers to the arrangement of the genes of the virus, which look very much like a necklace," Roizman explained. His current research concentrates on elucidating the functions of the virus's 84 genes. This information will be useful in determining which combination of genes is best for delivering therapy to cancer cells.

    Roizman and colleagues Ralph Weicheslbaum, the Harold H. Hines Jr. Professor and Chairman of Radiology & Cell Oncology, and Richard Whitley of the University of Alabama, have used a modified herpes virus against brain tumors in mice, with encouraging results. These viruses contained no added DNA; instead they killed the cancer cells when the virus expressed its own toxic genes. Currently, a similar virus is being used in Phase I trials on patients with brain cancers.

    Nearly 100 percent of the population carries the virus for herpes simplex I, and about 25 percent carry the virus for herpes simplex II, the second most common venereal disease in the United States.

    Herpes is transmitted by contact with the mucous membranes of someone carrying the virus. "It's often a childhood disease, usually transmitted by parents kissing their children," Roizman said. It can also be passed from mother to child during birth if the mother has herpes simplex II and has lesions on the vaginal walls. In about 50 percent of those cases, the virus is fatal.

    The Nora and Edward Ryerson Lecture was established in 1972 by the Board of Trustees to give distinguished members of the faculty an opportunity to speak to the University community about their life and work. The Ryerson Lecturer is nominated by a faculty committee appointed by the president.