Cold sores may be a nuisance this time of year, but two University researchers are working on putting the herpes simplex virus — the culprit behind cold sores — to better use.

The husband-and-wife team of Neurology Profs. David Fink and Marina Mata are looking into ways that a modified strain of HSV might help patients suffering from chronic pain associated with nerve damage.

Fink said the project used a herpes simplex viral vector to carry genes to malfunctioning sensory nerves that continue to signal pain despite the lack of other tissue injury.

Also the chair of the Department of Neurology, Fink said the human nervous system carries electrical signals for pain along a specific pathway connecting pain-sensing nerve endings to the brain. Conventional pain treatments rely on opiates like morphine to interact with opiate receptors along this pathway, thereby inhibiting the brain’s perception of pain.

The problem, Fink said, is that “opiate receptors are found in a lot of places,” not just along the pain pathway or in the nervous system. The presence of opiate receptors in other areas of the body is one reason opiate-based treatment of pain results in side effects that limit the dosages clinicians can use, he said.

Fink added that the gene therapy approach his laboratory is developing may offer a more effective alternative pain treatment, avoiding the side effects associated with opiate treatments. Since HSV naturally possesses the capacity and mechanisms necessary for transmitting genetic information to targeted cell types, Fink said that the virus is a well-suited vector for the study.

The Department of Veterans Affairs awarded a $1.8 million grant early last month to fund the HSV research.

Fink said pharmaceutical companies and start-up firms — not grants — are usually the sources of funding for such undertakings. He said the new grant will fund the production of a human-grade herpes simplex vector, which is essential for testing the gene-transfer pain therapy in clinical trials involving human patients.

“The start-ups are ideally suited for novel work but have limited resources, while the pharmaceutical companies are typically more risk-averse,” Fink said.

But in the current economic environment, he said, pharmaceutical corporations have become even more cautious about funding innovative research. In light of the hesitation from pharmaceuticals, Fink said, grants specifically intended to fund translational research to produce certified human-grade vectors are critical to advancing new medical research.

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