Turning Herpes Into a Helper

Richard Whitley
Richard Whitley
For a biomedical researcher, nothing is quite so satisfying as stopping a disease-causing virus in its tracks—except, perhaps, turning that same virus into a treatment for other diseases. That’s the breakthrough Richard Whitley, M.D., and his colleagues made with the herpes simplex virus, a nasty contagion they turned into a useful component of the physician’s toolkit.

In 1977, UAB’s Whitley and Charles Alford developed vidarabine, the first drug to treat encephalitis caused by the herpes simplex virus. Their achievement opened the door to the whole field of antiviral therapy, and today antivirals are a vital part of the pharmacological arsenal, used to treat influenza, HIV, and many other conditions.

Building on the knowledge gained from their work with vidarabine, Whitley’s lab forged on. Acyclovir, one of the most commonly used drugs for herpes simplex, was first tested in humans at UAB in 1998. Whitley and a collaborative group of infectious disease researchers have gone on to conduct studies of drugs for congenital cytomegalovirus and West Nile virus and, most recently, an antiviral drug for flu that is safe for children under the age of one.

One of the most intriguing drug treatments developed in the Whitley lab, however, was based on herpes itself. In the 1990s, using the vast amount of knowledge gained from 20 years of unlocking the secrets of herpes simplex, UAB researchers managed to transform the efficiently infective virus into a beneficial drug.

Whitley and his team developed a genetically engineered version of herpes simplex virus that can be used to destroy primary brain tumors. The enhanced virus has been rendered incapable of infecting humans with herpes, but does have the unique ability to enter tumor cells, where it replicates, overwhelming the cell’s own machinery and killing it. Trials at UAB under the direction of neurosurgeon James Markert, M.D., have shown tremendous promise.  Findings published in late 2008 showed the drug was safe, and demonstrated efficacy in killing tumor cells. The next step, says Whitley, is to perfect the engineered virus and determine which conditions will bring about the best response.


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