Most people who have genital herpes don’t experience any symptoms when the virus reactivates, and scientists now think they know why. Researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington have successfully identified the T-cells that they believe suppress herpes outbreaks. The discovery opens the possibility of developing a herpes vaccine in the future.
The newly-discovered subclass of CD8+ T-cells, called CD8aa+, are located at the nerve endings of the genital skin and mucosa, the same place where the herpes virus is released into the skin. Unlike CD8aB+ T-cells, which increase to help heal a herpes lesion but then go away, the CD8aa+ cells remain in the skin all the time and are very effective at containing outbreaks of the virus. Most of the research on CD8+ T-cells has focused on studying the cells in circulating blood.
Many people infected with the herpes virus — about one out of every six people in the United States — don’t know they have it because either they don’t have any symptoms, their symptoms are minor or they mistake a herpes infection for another skin condition. However, even without a visible sore, someone with herpes can infect another person during sexual contact.
There’s a simple blood test that can determine whether you have herpes.
Researchers are hopeful that the discovery can not only lead to a vaccine for herpes, but will also help scientists studying other diseases such as HIV.