In collaboration with Fred Hutch staff scientist Martine Aubert, PhD, Dr. Jerome aims to shift the paradigm from symptomatic control of viral infections to curative therapeutics. The experimental drug they developed consists of an injection of millions of laboratory-modified viruses that have been hollowed out to carry inside them two different enzymes that work like molecular scissors to lethally damage the herpes virus.
In 2020, Drs. Jerome and Aubert reported that the drug can eliminate more than 90% of the latent herpesvirus in nerve clusters near the faces of study mice. Since then, they have tested the therapy to treat HSV in a cluster of nerves near the genital tract of mice, reducing latent virus there by 97%. The treatment also suppressed, and even eliminated, viral shedding in treated mice. These data point toward the treatment’s potential to cure HSV.
Peer reviewed article linked here. (link: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17936-5.pdf)
Donor support enabled the team to perform additional studies in guinea pigs, which, unlike mice, have naturally recurring outbreaks from latent herpes infections. The therapy reduced latent HSV by over 30% in nerves near the genital tract. There were fewer recurrences, and when the virus did recur the severity dropped by 50%.
With positive preclinical results accumulating, Drs. Jerome and Aubert aim to test the therapy in humans in an early-stage clinical trial. In the meantime, their laboratory research has continued to gain momentum.
Expanding studies using the guinea pig model. Fred Hutch and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are working together to greatly expand guinea pig testing of the therapy at NIH facilities starting in October 2023. Reproducing the initial positive results in this independent, highly respected lab will reinforce the therapy’s promise, a great benefit as they seek approval for clinical trials.
Making the therapy even safer. At very high doses, the therapy can have side effects — animals stop gaining weight, and there are signs of tissue stress in their liver and nerves. Drs. Jerome and Aubert used a genetic trick to precisely target the therapy to neurons, the cell type where latent HSV hides, which eliminated the undesired side effects.
Reducing the cost of therapy. The team is committed to creating a therapy that is financially within reach for everyone who needs it. To reduce the amount of the drug required for treatment, the researchers tried injecting the therapy directly into the fluid surrounding the affected nerves instead of administering it through intravenous injection. This strategy enables them to reduce the amount of the drug needed by five-fold and still elicit a strong anti-HSV response.
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