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A herpes vaccine from a company that makes vaccines against COVID-19 is being tested

A herpes vaccine from a company that makes vaccines against COVID-19 is being tested

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More from BioNTech and its accidental corporate partner Pfizer announced they have developed an mRNA vaccine for COVID-19, biotech researchers have been salivating over 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 have eluded immunologists, including retroviruses such as HIV – which researchers are already working on mRNA vaccine.

Such is the case with BioNTech’s latest venture with mRNA vaccines: Developing an inoculation for herpesfor which no vaccine has ever existed.

It is estimated that more than 1 in 9 Americans between the ages of 14 and 49 have HSV-2 infection.

Last week, the German vaccine manufacturer announced they are starting their first phase I human trials of a vaccine developed to prevent herpes simplex virus-2 (HSV-2) and potentially herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1). HSV-1 is associated with oral herpes, while HSV-2 is associated with genital herpes, although both can show outbreaks in other parts of the body.

The new vaccine is the result of a joint research project with the University of Pennsylvania that began in 2018 to develop mRNA vaccines for a wide range of diseases.

Because this is Phase 1, this means that BioNTech has developed a vaccine candidate that promises to be both effective and safe. At the same time, the pharmaceutical company has not yet expanded its tests to a large group of patients, which is known as phase III. In the first stage, the company is just starting to test the vaccine on humans. If the Phase I trials are successful, the company will gradually test the vaccine on larger numbers of patients to prove that it can prevent herpes infections.


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One of inherent advantages of mRNA vaccines is that they are more flexible than conventional vaccine platforms. Traditional vaccines will take all or part of a pathogen (a microorganism that causes disease), insert a dead or weakened version into the body, and thereby stimulate the immune system to build antibodies (pathogen-fighting cells) 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 have to create new vaccinations that keep up with different mutated variants of a disease. mRNA vaccines, by contrast, create synthetic versions of mRNA, a single-stranded RNA molecule that complements one of the DNA strands in the pathogen’s gene. By injecting a special version of the mRNA into the body, the immune cells will produce proteins like those found in a virus or bacteria and train the immune system to fight the pathogen in question before it makes a person sick.

Regardless of whether BioNTech’s vaccine ultimately proves effective, its very existence is, in a sense, a testament to the marketing power of Big Pharma. Before the late 1970s, herpes rarely received public attention because it rarely posed a serious health risk to people who suffered from it; on the majority of herpes patients are either asymptomatic or show only mild symptoms. Indeed, it is estimated that more than 1 in 9 Americans between the ages of 14 and 49 have HSV-2 infection. When herpes infections are symptomatic, the most common problems include painful urination, passing urine, pain and itching around the genitals, and – most embarrassingly – sores that can appear around the mouth and genitals.

Although few would argue that genital herpes is pleasant, it was not widely considered a particularly dangerous disease until an advertising campaign by the medical research company known as Burroughs Wellcome Co. (now known as GlaxoSmithKline PLC). Since Burroughs Wellcome Co. developed the first-ever treatment for genital herpes, Zovirax, they implemented an aggressive marketing plan that downplayed their drug and instead attached a stigma of shame to having genital herpes. This campaign involved the then-unusual action of a pharmaceutical company paying for full-page advertisements in national magazines that described genital herpes as embarrassing. The goal was to “encourage people with herpes to see their doctor,” according to a Burroughs spokeswoman at the time.

Flash forward more than four decades, and now medical experts believe they may have developed the best treatment for herpes. The forthcoming study is expected to be observer-blinded and placebo-controlled, and patients included 100 healthy volunteers with no current or past history of symptomatic genital herpes infections. If the Phase I trials are successful and the vaccine is eventually released to the public, genital herpes could be a thing of the past.

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