PULLMAN, Wash. – More than 500 scientists from around the globe will gather in Idaho this week to confront the scarlet letter “H.” Herpes, a common but highly stigmatized virus that has no cure, will be the focus of the 40th Annual International Herpesvirus Workshop in Boise, running Saturday through Wednesday.
Virologist Anthony Nicola oversees a herpes simplex virus research lab at WSU. (Photo by Dean Hare, WSU Photo Services)
Among the experts will be virologist Anthony Nicola of Washington State University, who has spent 20 years studying herpes simplex virus and who will convene a workshop session.
Studies estimate that worldwide, 90 percent of people carry one or both strains of herpes simplex, infamously known for causing lesions on the mouth or genitals. Not all carriers develop symptoms. Of those who do, many go on to suffer lifelong, sporadic flare-ups.
At WSU’s Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Pathology, Nicola probes how herpes simplex tricks the host cell into letting it in, and then, how it uses the cell’s own machinery to inflict two types of disease – one that primarily strikes above the waist, the other below.
Not only is he credited with uncovering how this crafty microbe takes control of our cells (see Journal of
Virology http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC153978/), but recently the National Institutes of Health awarded him a $1.9 million grant to further uncover the virus’s ruses.
“What’s most striking about the herpesvirus is that after it causes the initial infection, rather than be cleared from the body, it goes into a latency stage where it’s able to hide in nerve ganglia, beyond the immune system’s reach,” said Nicola. Later, triggers such as stress, illness or fatigue can reawaken the virus and set off a new outbreak, he said.
Stigma fuels transmission
Type 1 is generally considered the oral version of herpes simplex and Type 2 the genital variety. However, it’s now known that the two types can infect either area, said Nicola.
Cases of genital herpes have been growing since the onslaught of HIV/AIDS, especially among teenagers, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Once recognized as a major public health concern, the significance of herpes was dwarfed in the 1980s by the AIDS pandemic.
Years later, “herpes has a stigma,” said Nicola. Too often, shame and humiliation are associated with the disease, he said.
And that stigma – along with the silence it breeds – contributes to herpes’ transmission because so many people are clueless that they are carriers. While some individuals develop painful clusters of sores in the genital area, others with mild symptoms may confuse them for something else or feel no signs at all.
“The result is that we have this large group of people who don’t know they have the virus who can unknowingly spread it to others,” said Nicola. In fact, of the estimated 776,000 Americans who will contract new herpes in 2015, most won’t even realize it, according to the CDC. They, in turn, could pass it along to others.
Complications occur when herpes simplex is spread to the eye, a leading cause of blindness in industrialized nations. But the most serious form is when it’s passed to newborns going through the birth canal of an infected mother, leading to brain damage and death.
Know thy enemy
Among other things, Nicola studies how the virus is able to reach the host cell’s cytoplasm, or nucleus, where it churns out millions of new viral particles to launch infection. By detecting lowering alkaline levels inside the cell, “the herpesvirus abandons ship from inside its vesicle before the cell’s lysosome – an organelle that acts like a garbage disposal – can destroy it,” he said.
Herpes simplex virus tricks the host cell into letting it inside. Then, by detecting lower pH levels inside the cell, the virus “abandons ship” from the vesicle before it can be destroyed, moving on to the cell nucleus to cause infection. (Diagram by Anthony Nicola)
“Herpesvirus has been a tough nut to crack. Because of Anthony’s research, we have a better understanding of how it gets inside the host cell to cause infection,” said David Bloom, a virologist with the University of Florida School of Medicine who is co-chairing the Boise workshop. “It’s important because herpes is one of the most widespread viruses we know of and once it infects the body, it never leaves.”
Better understanding how this tiny but complex enemy infiltrates host cells will help scientists identify intervention strategies and antiviral drug targets, he explained.
Joining Bloom and Nicola at the Boise conference will be Nicola’s three Ph.D. students from his research lab and herpes scientists from 14 other countries, including China, Finland, Australia and Norway.