How the Immune System Fights to Keep Herpes at Bay

HSV Viruses in Nucleus
(Credit: Dr. Linda Stannard)

Herpes simplex virus (HSV) is extremely common, affecting nearly two-thirds of the world’s population, according to the World Health Organization. Once inside the body, HSV establishes a latent infection that periodically awakens, causing painful blisters on the skin, typically around the nose and mouth. While a mere nuisance for most people, HSV can also lead to dangerous eye infections and brain inflammation in some people and cause life-threatening infections in newborns. Researchers have long known that the virus and the host immune system are in a perpetual competition, but why does this battle reach a stasis in most people while causing serious infections in others? More importantly, precisely how does the battle unfold at the level of cells and molecules? This question has continued to bedevil scientists and hamper the quest for treatments that prevent or cure infections. A recent study by researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), conducted using lab-engineered cells and published in PNAS, unveils the precise maneuvers used by host and pathogen in the fight for dominance of the cell. Furthermore, the research shows how the immune system keeps the virus at bay in a battle taking place at the control center of the cell — its nucleus. The PNAS article, published October 26, 2023, is titled “Nuclear Interferon-Stimulated Gene Product Maintains Heterochromatin on the Herpes Simplex Viral Genome to Limit Lytic Infection.”

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