Herpes is the collective name for a group of contagious DNA viruses that remain in your body once contracted and can cause several infections over a person's lifetime. The most common infections caused by the herpes virus include genital herpes, shingles and cold sores. The herpes virus can sometimes lie dormant in your system for years at a time but can awaken sporadically, causing discomfort and pain.
The herpes virus is more common than many people realise; most people who caught chickenpox as a child have some kind of the virus within their body. Chickenpox is caused by a variant of the virus known as herpes zoster. Herpes zoster is one of the milder strains of this virus, but it can cause shingles later in life which can be very painful. Cold sores and genital herpes belong to the herpes simplex strain of the virus. Genital herpes is highly contagious and one of the more serious infections, which is caught through unprotected intercourse.
It is best to start treatment as soon as possible when you experience an outbreak of symptoms because this will help you to recover quicker and minimise the discomfort you feel. The most popular anti-viral treatments for outbreaks of herpes simplex and herpes zoster are Valtrex and Famvir. These treatments work by preventing the spread of the virus, pushing it back into a dormant state.
Doctors have used a genetically engineered herpes virus to help treat patients suffering from mouth, neck and head cancer. In a trial run by the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) and The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, 17 patients were given injections of the virus, as well as being treated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
The cold sore virus, known as Onco VEX, was modified to multiply inside cancer cells but not in healthy ones. It would then burst and kill tumour cells, as well as releasing a human protein that would help stimulate patients' immune systems.
The virus was injected into cancer affected lymph nodes of the patients, in up to four doses.
Tumour shrinkage could be seen on scans for 14 patients, and over three quarters of the participants showed no trace of residual cancer in their lymph nodes during subsequent surgery to remove them. More than two years later, over three quarters of the patients involved in the study had not succumbed to the disease.
Dr Kevin Harrington, Principle Investigator for the ICR and The Royal Marsden said: "Around 35 to 55 per cent of patients given the standard chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment typically relapse within two years, so these results compare very favourably.
He added: "This was a small study so the results should be interpreted with caution; however the very high rates of tumour response have led to the decision to take this drug into a large scale Phase III trial."
The treatment's side-effects were mild to moderate, and most (except fever and fatigue) were thought to be caused by the chemotherapy and radiotherapy.