The herpes simplex virus can infect the mouth and genitals of both men and women, but did you know it could also get into your eyes?

Thankfully, new research has discovered a drug that could help treat when existing treatment don't make the cut.

While we tend to focus our attention on its vaginal and buccal cousins, ocular herpes is extremely serious, can scar the cornea and lead to blindness if left untreated.

Herpes is for life, and the only solace is that drugs exist to make its symptoms more manageable and to prevent contagion up to a point.

However, some patients can grow resistant to these treatments, which reduces their access to certain drugs.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have developed a new class of drug that could provide an alternative for patients that have grown resistant to existing treatment.

This drug managed to clear the herpes infection in cells of the cornea and the team believes it could prove as successful in treating HSV-1 in the mouth and HSV-2, which affects the genitals as well as possibly helping treat viral infections like HIV.

"It could be a new kind of broad-spectrum antiviral that might be used to treat other viral infections," said Deepak Shukla, Professor of Ophthalmology and of microbiology and immunology. This could include: "HSV-2, which primarily affects the genitals, and HIV, although we have not yet tested it on viruses other than HSV-1."

How it works

The treatments that are currently available are called nucleoside analogs and work by preventing the virus from producing the proteins it needs to replicate.

When it comes to ocular herpes, it can be treated by applying steroid-based eye drops. However, people suffering from HSV-1 grow resistant to these drugs, which can lead to serious complications, including damaging their optic nerve and ending up blind.

"We have found a molecule that works in a totally novel fashion," explains Shukla, "instead of working on the virus, it works in the host cells and helps them to clear the virus."

This particular molecule is called BX795, and successfully cleared the virus from host cells in the cornea without causing any damages. It was tested on cultured human corneal cells, donated human corneal cells and on the corneas of infected mice.

The finding was surprising, because one of the properties of BX795 is that it fights an enzyme known at TBK1, which plays a role in neuroinflammation. By clearing TBK1 from corneal cells, BX795 should make the infection worse. But if the concentration of BX795 is increased, then the opposite happens.

So far, the results are promising:"There was no discernable toxicity or negative side effects at therapeutic concentrations in cells that are not infected with the virus," Shukla said.