A Fairfax medical team has started treating victims of genital herpes with interferon in an experiment that researchers hope will lead to a cure for the sexually transmitted disease that affects an estimated 10 to 20 million people.

Dr. Lawrence J. Eron, who is heading the research team at the Va. Medical Team Treats Herpes With Interferon By Sandra Sugawara Washington Post Staff Writer

A Fairfax medical team has started treating victims of genital herpes with interferon in an experiment that researchers hope will lead to a cure for the sexually transmitted disease that affects an estimated 10 to 20 million people.

Dr. Lawrence J. Eron, who is heading the research team at the Infectious Disease Physicians Inc., 8318 Arlington Blvd., said, "I'm optimistic, but cautiously optimistic."

The Fairfax interferon testing on herpes is one of several such experiments under way across the country. Eron said there have not yet "been any conclusive results" from any of the tests, although pilot projects indicate that interferon has been effective in the treatment of another form of herpes that causes shingles.

Eron said his team's interferon experiment began two months ago and about 100 patients have received the treatment. In the next several months, he hopes to treat an additional 200 victims of the herpes simplex type II virus with interferon.

Follow-up examinations within 6 to 9 months of the treatment should reveal what impact, if any, the interferon had, Eron said. Most outbreaks occur with six months of the previous one, he said. "By a year from now, we should know how effective interferon is," Eron said.

Interferon is a virus-fighting protein produced by the human body. It has been hailed as a possible wonder drug for everything from chronic hepatitis to cancer, although there is yet little conclusive evidence.

The Fairfax interferon treatment is free to the patients because two pharmaceutical companies involved with the drug, Hoffman La Roche Inc. and Schering-Plough Corp., have agreed to pay the costs, Eron said.

About 10 to 25 percent of the sexually active people in the Washington metropolitan area, or 50,000 to 100,000 people, suffer from genital herpes, Eron said.

When herpes simplex type II is transmitted through sexual intercourse it penetrates the skin and infects the nerves, where the body's immune response system is less effective.

For the first attack, an antiviral ointment known as acyclovir may cause the sores to heal more quickly, but the cream does not kill the virus nor does it speed healing of subsequent outbreaks. Some physicians have begun to administer acyclovir intraveneously, but there is no strong evidence that that prevents recurrences, Eron said.

Because interferon prevents viruses from multiplying and stimulates the body's production of a natural killer cell that eradicates viruses, researchers hope that interferon will kill the genital herpes virus.

The interferon must be administered within six days of the appearance of sores, if it is the first outbreak, or within 12 hours of a recurrence of the lesions. Some types of interferon are applied topically, some are injected and some are given intraveneously; the length of treatment varies with the technique used.

"Herpes is not a major problem worldwide, compared to malnutrition or malaria," Eron said. "But in our society, it has had fantastic implications . . . . It destroys people's lives."