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Halting herpes eye disease

Eye and eye chart
The herpes virus can infect the cornea area, causing a potentially blinding condition called herpetic stromal keratitis.

A vaccine created by UC Irvine researchers may prevent a leading cause of blindness—and more

Most people know that herpes produces recurring blisters and lesions, but few are aware that it's also one of the leading causes of blindness.

About half a million Americans have ocular herpes, stemming from the type 1 herpes simplex virus (HSV-1). While it often remains dormant, the virus can be activated by psychological, chemical or environmental stresses and infect the eye's corneal region, sometimes causing a potentially blinding condition called herpetic stromal keratitis.

Current drug therapies can treat ocular herpes but do not prevent future attacks. But Lbachir BenMohamed and Dr. Anthony Nesburn with the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute, UC Irvine's ophthalmology department, have developed a promising vaccine to give long-term protection from HSV-1 activating and attacking the cornea.

Their vaccine produced excellent results in preclinical tests, and BenMohamed and Nesburn have found it to also work against genital herpes, which puts people at a significantly higher risk of contracting HIV.

"Our goal is to attack the virus at the root of the disease," says BenMohamed, a member of UC Irvine's Institute for Immunology. "While tests are proving the vaccine effective for eye herpes diseases, it also might help curb genital herpes diseases and, potentially, the AIDS epidemic."

A paper by BenMohamed and Nesburn on preclinical studies of their vaccine against genital herpes appeared in Mucosal Immunology.

The vaccine is distinctive because it's administered as eye drops rather than injected. This is advantageous in two ways, BenMohamed says: Mucosal vaccines are easier and less expensive to produce, and they can be conveniently applied by patients themselves without using syringes.

The National Institutes of Health and Discovery Eye Foundation have supported BenMohamed and Nesburn's eight-year research effort. Nesburn, in fact, is the Los Angeles-based foundation's medical director. The two men recently formed a company, Micro Antigen Technologies, to create a version of the vaccine for early-stage clinical trials on human patients.

"Developing a vaccine consumes time and resources, but we've been fortunate to have the support to make it this far," BenMohamed says. "We plan to have FDA-approved first-stage human trials in the next two to three years, and if those go well, we are on our way to an easy-to-use treatment for the many millions of people who already have the herpes virus."

— Tom Vasich, University Communications