A herpes that drugs can't touch

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BETHESDA, MD.--An estimated 30 million Americans have herpes simplex 2, a sexually transmitted virus that provokes painful lesions on the trunk or genitals. Now researchers have discovered an otherwise-healthy man whose infection appears unchecked by massive doses of a cyclovir, the drug that has been used to quell herpes symptoms for more than a decade. His dilemma may spell trouble for sexually active adults.

The 24-year-old man was studied by scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Despite doses of acyclovir six times higher than normal, they found, the patient continued to suffer frequent eruptions of herpes lesions. When researchers analyzed his virus, they discovered mutations that seem to fend off acyclovir's attack.

Increasingly, scientists and physicians are faced with microbes that have become resistant to drugs. Forty years ago, for instance, minute quantities of penicillin could kill the bacteria that cause gonorrhea. Today huge doses are sometimes needed. Until now, though, drug-resistant herpes has been found only in people with damaged immune systems.

According to microbiologist Stephen Straus, who led the study, it's not clear whether the virus mutated before or after the patient acquired it--an important question in terms of how widespread the mutation has become. The question could be resolved by testing the patient's sexual partners (he had four before his first outbreak). Unfortunately, the only one who admits to a herpes infection has refused further evaluation. So the worst-case scenario cannot be ruled out, says Straus: an intractable strain of herpes already spreading over the sexual landscape.

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By Ingfei Chen, Katherine Griffin, and John Hastings

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