A scientist at Springfield's Southern Illinois University School of Medicine says he has developed a vaccine that could provide near-total protection against genital herpes, one of the world's most common sexually transmitted infections.
"To me, this is the future genital herpes vaccine," William Halford told The State Journal-Register last week. "It's exciting on multiple levels."
About 1 billion people - one-sixth of the world's population - are infected with herpes simplex virus-2, the most common cause of genital herpes. In the United States, an estimated 50 million people carry the virus, and up to 3 million of those people suffer recurrent outbreaks of genital herpes as often as four times a year.
Work to develop a genital herpes vaccine has gone on for decades, and millions of dollars have been spent on vaccine research, so far with a "lot of disappointment," said Fred Wyand, spokesman for the North Carolina-based American Social Health Association.
An effective herpes vaccine has "always been something of a holy grail," he said. "Such a vaccine would be headline news around the world."
Stephani Cox, a Decatur-based nurse practitioner and downstate lead clinician for Planned Parenthood of Illinois, said a herpes vaccine "would be wonderful. It is often devastating to receive a diagnosis of herpes."
Will seek a patent
Halford, 41, an associate professor of medical microbiology, immunology and cell biology, said he is preparing to publish the results of his research in a scientific journal. He also is working to secure a patent for his concept, which so far has been demonstrated only in laboratory mice.
He isn't yet willing to share specific details of his research with the general public, but is confident his research will be published later this year.
It would take at least several years more before a vaccine would be available for humans in clinical trials, he said.
Linda Toth, the SIU medical school's associate dean for research and faculty affairs, said Halford's discovery has a lot of potential.
"A lot of people could potentially benefit in terms of preventing the contraction of what's essentially a lifelong disease that can cause significant problems for many people," Toth said. "He's certainly got a very novel approach."
Halford said his findings will be controversial, prompting debate in the scientific community and possibly delaying eventual approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, because his vaccine uses a live form of the herpes virus.
Most new vaccines now on the market, whether for influenza, Hepatitis B or human papillomavirus (HPV), use a piece or pieces of protein from a virus - but not an entire live virus.
However, Halford noted that live, weakened virus strains have been used for years in childhood vaccines to protect against measles, mumps, rubella and polio.
But since the 1970s, when genetic-engineering techniques became available, scientists in the United States developed the widespread philosophy that creating new vaccines with live viruses is too risky for patients, Halford said.
He said he encountered resistance from fellow scientists when trying to secure the $400,125 grant he eventually received for the final phase of his work from the National Institutes of Health.
"Their first knee-jerk reaction is that it's too dangerous, but that reaction isn't based on data. It's an impression," he said. "There's really that conceptual block to overcome."
Halford said he has changed the herpes simplex virus-2 by altering a gene known as "ICP0" so the virus no longer causes herpes symptoms.
"It absolutely loses its ability to cause disease," Halford said, adding that tests at SIU with 600 to 700 laboratory mice since July have confirmed the vaccine's effectiveness and safety.
"The data is just so clear-cut," he said.
Toth said vaccines that use live, weakened virus strains are "quite effective," though care must be used because they can cause complications for people with suppressed immune systems.
Toth said an SIU committee of scientists recently gave Halford's vaccine findings a vote of support.
"The data that he showed the committee were all very positive that this could be effective," Toth said. "There's obviously a long way to go, but so far the signs are positive that it may be safe and effective when it's translated into people."
In addition to preventing people from getting genital herpes, a successful vaccine could give more peace of mind to herpes sufferers worried about infecting their sexual partners, Toth said.
She said Halford's discovery would be good for the reputation of SIU, one of the nation's smallest medical schools. If the discovery receives FDA approval and is brought to market, it could generate annual royalties for SIU, she said.
After the costs of patent, licensing and other development costs are recovered, remaining royalties would be divided equally between Halford and the medical school, based on the school's standard policy for intellectual property, Toth said.
Halford joined SIU's faculty in 2007, but has been researching the herpes simplex virus since 1992, first focusing on HSV-1, which causes cold sores and sometimes leads to genital herpes. Laboratory technicians Brandon Rakowski and Ringo Puschel have assisted Halford in his research at SIU.
A native of New Orleans, Halford previously worked on the faculty at Montana State University in Bozeman and Tulane University School of Medicine.
Dean Olsen can be reached at 788-1543.
*Genital herpes in the United States increased in prevalence by 30 percent in the 1980s and 1990s, according to one study. Between one in five and one in six American adults are infected with genital herpes, but up to 90 percent of people are unaware they are infected.
*Herpes is transmitted through direct skin-to-skin contact, when a contagious area comes into contact with a tiny break in the skin or mucus-membrane tissues, primarily the mouth and the genitals.
*Most people have mild symptoms or no symptoms. Classic symptoms are sores that resemble small pimples or blisters that eventually crust over and finally scab like a small cut. The lesions may take two to four weeks to fully heal.
*While rarely leading to other health-related complications, a diagnosis of genital herpes can cause embarrassment and anxiety and lead to social isolation. Herpes outbreaks and the risk of transmission can be reduced by the frequent use of oral anti-viral medicines such as Valtrex, Famvir and Zovirax.
*Herpes can be spread when symptoms are present and not present.
*Regular condom use can decrease the rate of transmission.
*There are no documented cases of a person getting genital herpes from an inanimate object, such as a toilet seat, bathtub or towel. The herpes virus is fragile and doesn't live a long time on such surfaces.
*Blood tests and other tests are available to diagnose herpes.
*Medical costs associated with genital herpes in the United States come to somewhere between $207 million and $984 million a year, according to the most recent estimates, which are about 10 years old.
*An estimated 5,000 people die worldwide from herpes simplex virus-2 and herpes simplex virus-1. Babies, who can acquire genital herpes from their mothers in childbirth, can become extremely ill and suffer brain damage as a result of genital herpes infection.
*Herpes ulcers can enhance the transmission of human immunodeficiency virus, which causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS.
Sources: American Social Health Association (http://www.ashastd.org), SIU School of Medicine scientist William Halford and State Journal-Register research.
Research strengths at SIU School of Medicine
Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, which began operating in 1970 and has campuses in Springfield and Carbondale, has developed a national reputation for its research on age-related hearing loss. The school also is known for its study of innovative ways to educate medical students. SIU faculty members have received national and international attention in other research areas, as well. Here are details about some of SIU's most well-known scientists.
*SIU researcher Kathleen Campbell is developing the drug D-methionine for the prevention of hearing loss in cancer patients during chemotherapy. The drug currently is in clinical trials. Campbell's research also has contributed to the potential use of D-methionine to prevent painful inflammation in cancer patients who undergo radiation therapy.
*Donald Caspary, a neuroscientist, has worked with colleagues at SIU for more than 25 years to discover how brain chemistry changes as hearing ability declines with age. Other scientists in SIU's "auditory research group" include professor Tom Brozoski, associate professor Dr. Carol Bauer and assistant professor Jeremy Turner.
*Dr. Leonard Rybak has spent his career investigating why certain medicines that treat cancer and other ailments cause hearing loss.
*Andrzej Bartke, a physiologist at the Springfield campus since 2002, last year received an $8.6 million federal grant - the largest in the medical school's history - to expand his study of the factors affecting aging and longevity.
*Cancer is SIU's biggest growing focus of research, with a current total of $9.6 million in multi-year grant funding. SIU's top cancer researchers are Kounosuke Watabe, Yin-Yuan Mo, Dr. Deliang Cao, Daotai Nie, Sophia Ran and Dr. Laura Rogers.
*Gregory Brewer, a cell biologist, and Robert Struble, a brain-anatomy expert, are doing research into long-term treatments and cures for Alzheimer disease.
*Dr. Michael Pranzatelli, a pediatric neurologist, attracts patients from around the world who want to benefit from his research and treatments for a rare brain disease called opsoclonus-myoclonus syndrome.
Photo: William Halford, a research scientist at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, is closing in on a vaccine against herpes. He holds tests results indicating the effectiveness of the vaccine. Rich Saal/The State Journal-Register.