scientist at Springfield's Southern Illinois University School of
Medicine says he has developed a vaccine that could provide near-total
protection against genital herpes, one of the world's most common
sexually transmitted infections.
"To me, this is the future genital herpes vaccine," William
Halford told The State Journal-Register last week. "It's exciting
on multiple levels."
About 1 billion people - one-sixth of the world's population - are
infected with herpes simplex virus-2, the most common cause of genital
herpes. In the United States, an estimated 50 million people carry the
virus, and up to 3 million of those people suffer recurrent outbreaks of
genital herpes as often as four times a year.
Work to develop a genital herpes vaccine has gone on for decades, and
millions of dollars have been spent on vaccine research, so far with a
"lot of disappointment," said Fred Wyand, spokesman for the
North Carolina-based American Social Health Association.
An effective herpes vaccine has "always been something of a holy
grail," he said. "Such a vaccine would be headline news around
Stephani Cox, a Decatur-based nurse practitioner and downstate lead
clinician for Planned Parenthood of Illinois, said a herpes vaccine
"would be wonderful. It is often devastating to receive a diagnosis
Will seek a patent
Halford, 41, an associate professor of medical microbiology,
immunology and cell biology, said he is preparing to publish the results
of his research in a scientific journal. He also is working to secure a
patent for his concept, which so far has been demonstrated only in
He isn't yet willing to share specific details of his research with
the general public, but is confident his research will be published
later this year.
It would take at least several years more before a vaccine would be
available for humans in clinical trials, he said.
Linda Toth, the SIU medical school's associate dean for research and
faculty affairs, said Halford's discovery has a lot of potential.
"A lot of people could potentially benefit in terms of
preventing the contraction of what's essentially a lifelong disease that
can cause significant problems for many people," Toth said.
"He's certainly got a very novel approach."
Halford said his findings will be controversial, prompting debate in
the scientific community and possibly delaying eventual approval by the
U.S. Food and Drug Administration, because his vaccine uses a live form
of the herpes virus.
Most new vaccines now on the market, whether for influenza, Hepatitis
B or human papillomavirus (HPV), use a piece or pieces of protein from a
virus - but not an entire live virus.
However, Halford noted that live, weakened virus strains have been
used for years in childhood vaccines to protect against measles, mumps,
rubella and polio.
But since the 1970s, when genetic-engineering techniques became
available, scientists in the United States developed the widespread
philosophy that creating new vaccines with live viruses is too risky for
patients, Halford said.
He said he encountered resistance from fellow scientists when trying
to secure the $400,125 grant he eventually received for the final phase
of his work from the National Institutes of Health.
"Their first knee-jerk reaction is that it's too dangerous, but
that reaction isn't based on data. It's an impression," he said.
"There's really that conceptual block to overcome."
Halford said he has changed the herpes simplex virus-2 by altering a
gene known as "ICP0" so the virus no longer causes herpes
"It absolutely loses its ability to cause disease," Halford
said, adding that tests at SIU with 600 to 700 laboratory mice since
July have confirmed the vaccine's effectiveness and safety.
"The data is just so clear-cut," he said.
Toth said vaccines that use live, weakened virus strains are
"quite effective," though care must be used because they can
cause complications for people with suppressed immune systems.
Toth said an SIU committee of scientists recently gave Halford's
vaccine findings a vote of support.
"The data that he showed the committee were all very positive
that this could be effective," Toth said. "There's obviously a
long way to go, but so far the signs are positive that it may be safe
and effective when it's translated into people."
In addition to preventing people from getting genital herpes, a
successful vaccine could give more peace of mind to herpes sufferers
worried about infecting their sexual partners, Toth said.
She said Halford's discovery would be good for the reputation of SIU,
one of the nation's smallest medical schools. If the discovery receives
FDA approval and is brought to market, it could generate annual
royalties for SIU, she said.
After the costs of patent, licensing and other development costs are
recovered, remaining royalties would be divided equally between Halford
and the medical school, based on the school's standard policy for
intellectual property, Toth said.
Halford joined SIU's faculty in 2007, but has been researching the
herpes simplex virus since 1992, first focusing on HSV-1, which causes
cold sores and sometimes leads to genital herpes. Laboratory technicians
Brandon Rakowski and Ringo Puschel have assisted Halford in his research
A native of New Orleans, Halford previously worked on the faculty at
Montana State University in Bozeman and Tulane University School of
Dean Olsen can be reached at 217-788-1543.
*Genital herpes in the United States increased in prevalence by 30
percent in the 1980s and 1990s, according to one study. Between one in
five and one in six American adults are infected with genital herpes,
but up to 90 percent of people are unaware they are infected.
*Herpes is transmitted through direct skin-to-skin contact, when a
contagious area comes into contact with a tiny break in the skin or
mucus-membrane tissues, primarily the mouth and the genitals.
*Most people have mild symptoms or no symptoms. Classic symptoms are
sores that resemble small pimples or blisters that eventually crust over
and finally scab like a small cut. The lesions may take two to four
weeks to fully heal.
*While rarely leading to other health-related complications, a
diagnosis of genital herpes can cause embarrassment and anxiety and lead
to social isolation. Herpes outbreaks and the risk of transmission can
be reduced by the frequent use of oral anti-viral medicines such as
Valtrex, Famvir and Zovirax.
*Herpes can be spread when symptoms are present and not present.
*Regular condom use can decrease the rate of transmission.
*There are no documented cases of a person getting genital herpes
from an inanimate object, such as a toilet seat, bathtub or towel. The
herpes virus is fragile and doesn't live a long time on such surfaces.
*Blood tests and other tests are available to diagnose herpes.
*Medical costs associated with genital herpes in the United States
come to somewhere between $207 million and $984 million a year,
according to the most recent estimates, which are about 10 years old.
*An estimated 5,000 people die worldwide from herpes simplex virus-2
and herpes simplex virus-1. Babies, who can acquire genital herpes from
their mothers in childbirth, can become extremely ill and suffer brain
damage as a result of genital herpes infection.
*Herpes ulcers can enhance the transmission of human immunodeficiency
virus, which causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS.
Sources: American Social Health Association (http://www.ashastd.org),
SIU School of Medicine scientist William Halford and State
Research strengths at SIU School of Medicine
Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, which began
operating in 1970 and has campuses in Springfield and Carbondale, has
developed a national reputation for its research on age-related hearing
loss. The school also is known for its study of innovative ways to
educate medical students. SIU faculty members have received national and
international attention in other research areas, as well. Here are
details about some of SIU's most well-known scientists.
*SIU researcher Kathleen Campbell is developing the drug D-methionine
for the prevention of hearing loss in cancer patients during
chemotherapy. The drug currently is in clinical trials. Campbell's
research also has contributed to the potential use of D-methionine to
prevent painful inflammation in cancer patients who undergo radiation
*Donald Caspary, a neuroscientist, has worked with colleagues at SIU
for more than 25 years to discover how brain chemistry changes as
hearing ability declines with age. Other scientists in SIU's
"auditory research group" include professor Tom Brozoski,
associate professor Dr. Carol Bauer and assistant professor Jeremy
*Dr. Leonard Rybak has spent his career investigating why certain
medicines that treat cancer and other ailments cause hearing loss.
*Andrzej Bartke, a physiologist at the Springfield campus since 2002,
last year received an $8.6 million federal grant - the largest in the
medical school's history - to expand his study of the factors affecting
aging and longevity.
*Cancer is SIU's biggest growing focus of research, with a current
total of $9.6 million in multi-year grant funding. SIU's top cancer
researchers are Kounosuke Watabe, Yin-Yuan Mo, Dr. Deliang Cao, Daotai
Nie, Sophia Ran and Dr. Laura Rogers.
*Gregory Brewer, a cell biologist, and Robert Struble, a
brain-anatomy expert, are doing research into long-term treatments and
cures for Alzheimer disease.
*Dr. Michael Pranzatelli, a pediatric neurologist, attracts patients
from around the world who want to benefit from his research and
treatments for a rare brain disease called opsoclonus-myoclonus
Photo: William Halford, a research scientist at the Southern
Illinois University School of Medicine, is closing in on a vaccine
against herpes. He holds tests results indicating the effectiveness of
the vaccine. Rich Saal/The State Journal-Register.