Ever since BioNTech and occasional business partner Pfizer announced they had developed an mRNA vaccine for COVID-19, biotech researchers have salivated at the promise of using mRNA vaccines on other pathogens. This speaks to the promise of mRNA vaccines: unlike conventional vaccine platforms, mRNA vaccines can be much more easily modified to treat new viruses. This opened the door to the possibility of vaccines against viruses that had eluded immunologists, including retroviruses like HIV – for which researchers are already working on an mRNA vaccine.
Such is the case with BioNTech’s latest attempt with mRNA vaccines: Developing an inoculation for herpes, for which a vaccine never existed.
It is estimated that more than 1 in 9 Americans between the ages of 14 and 49 are infected with HSV-2.
Last week, the German vaccine maker announced that it was starting its first phase I human trials for a vaccine developed to prevent herpes simplex virus-2 (HSV-2) and potentially the virus of herpes simplex-1 (HSV-1). HSV-1 is linked to oral herpes, while HSV-2 is linked to genital herpes, although both can have outbreaks in other parts of the body.
The new vaccine effort is the result of a joint research project with the University of Pennsylvania that began in 2018 with the goal of developing mRNA vaccines for a wide range of diseases.
Because this is Phase 1, it means BioNTech has developed a vaccine candidate that promises to be both effective and safe. At the same time, the pharmaceutical company has yet to expand its testing to a large cohort of patients, known as Phase III. At first, the company is only beginning to test the vaccine on humans. If phase I trials are successful, the company will gradually test the vaccine in increasing numbers of patients to prove that it is successful in preventing herpes infections.
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One of the intrinsic advantages of mRNA vaccines is that they are more malleable than conventional vaccine platforms. Traditional vaccines will take all or part of a given pathogen (a disease-causing microorganism), insert a dead or weakened version into the body, and thereby stimulate the immune system to build up antibodies (cells that fight pathogens) that are specifically designed to destroy them. While this method of vaccine development is generally safe and effective, it can put scientists at a disadvantage when they need to create new inoculations that track different mutated variants of a given disease. mRNA vaccines, on the other hand, create synthetic versions of mRNA, a single-stranded RNA molecule that complements one of the DNA strands of a pathogen’s gene. By injecting a tailored version of mRNA into the body, immune cells will produce proteins like those found in a given virus or bacteria and train the immune system to fight off the pathogen in question before it can render a sick human.
Regardless of whether the BioNTech vaccine ultimately proves effective, its mere existence is in a sense a testament to the marketing power of Big Pharma. Prior to the late 1970s, herpes rarely received public attention because it rarely poses a serious health risk to sufferers; the vast majority of herpes patients are either asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms. Indeed, it is estimated that more than 1 in 9 Americans between the ages of 14 and 49 are infected with HSV-2. When herpes infections are symptomatic, the most common problems include painful urination, urinary discharge, pain and itching around the genitals and, most infamously, sores that can appear around the mouth and genitals.
While few would say that genital herpes is pleasant, it was not widely regarded as a particularly costly disease until the advertising campaign of the medical research company known as Burroughs Wellcome Co. (now known as as GlaxoSmithKline PLC). Because Burroughs Wellcome Co. had developed a first-of-its-kind treatment for genital herpes, Zovirax, they implemented an aggressive marketing plan that downplayed their drug and instead attached a stigma of shame to genital herpes. . This campaign included the then unusual act of a pharmaceutical company paying for full-page advertisements in national magazines that portrayed genital herpes as embarrassing. The goal was “to encourage people with herpes to see their doctor,” according to a spokeswoman for Burroughs at the time.
More than four decades later, medical experts believe they may have developed the ultimate treatment for herpes. The upcoming study is expected to be observer-blinded and placebo-controlled, with patients comprising 100 healthy volunteers who have no current or past history of symptomatic genital herpes infections. If phase I trials are successful and a vaccine is finally made public, genital herpes could be a thing of the past.
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