Senior researchers at the Westmead Millennium Institute for Medical Research have changed medical science’s understanding of how the herpes simplex virus (HSV) enters the body.
Dr Min Kim and Prof Tony Cunningham have discovered a previously unknown interaction between the virus and key immune cells in the layers of the skin.
Being able to more clearly define the process is a significant advancement toward better public health because HSV not only causes cold sores and genital herpes, it also substantially increases patients’ risk of contracting HIV.
Until now, it was thought that the epidermal Langerhans cells which have first contact with HSV were responsible for transporting the virus to the lymph nodes. However, Dr Kim’s research, which used human skin cells, has found that there is a relay of the virus between Langerhans cells in the epidermis and two others types of dendritic cells in the deeper dermal layer.
The research findings, published in the prestigious journal PLOS Pathogens, reveal that HSV initially infects the mucosal epidermal Langerhans cells, but they become infected and die. It is the dermal dendritic cells that then take up the dead cells, triggering a viral antigen relay toward the lymph nodes and activating the immune system response.
Importantly, the discovery of this relay of the virus between the two cell types could identify them as targets for an ‘intradermal’ vaccine, applied into the deep layers of the skin rather than in to the muscle.
Dr Kim compares her research approach to battleground tactics: “To win this battle we need to know ourselves and know our enemy. We need to understand the human body and how it handles the virus, but we also need to understand how the virus invades the body.
“This finding has bought us a step closer to understanding how HSV wages war on our bodies and could have a significant impact in the development of an HSV vaccine, with the aim of lowering instances of both HSV and HIV infection,” said Dr Kim.