There are eight types of herpes viruses, and according to the World Health Organization the majority of the world’s population is infected with at least one. Despite the virus’ many different forms, there’s only one family of drugs capable of treating these infections. Worse is that these viruses are becoming resistant to our efforts to control it. However, a research team from the University of Utah may have identified an alternative drug class to treat this common infection, according to a recent study.

While genital and oral sores may be the best-known symptoms from herpes virus, different members of the herpes family virus can cause more serious ailments such as mononucleosis and shingles. Viral infections cannot be cured or treated, but antiviral medications work to stop the virus from replicating, Livestrong reported. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this viral suppression prevents the viruses from overriding a patient's body, and can lessen symptoms and reduce the length of time a person is sick.

For years, a team of researchers from the University of Utah have investigated different ways of treating a herpes virus infection. The focus of their research has been targeting a specific protein found on all herpes viruses, known as SM. The research team specifically focused on the Epstein Barr virus (EBV), a herpes virus that causes mono and is associated with several human cancers. The team used an online chemical library to scan different chemicals that may be able to target the SM protein. Lead researcher, Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, Chief of Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Utah told Medical Daily that spironolactone, a drug commonly used to treat heart failure for over 50 years, was tagged as possibly having these properties.

“As soon as we saw that it [spironolactone] was a drug that was already known to be usable in humans, we went ahead and examined its abilities,” Swaminathan told Medical Daily.

Like drugs commonly used to treat EBV infections, spironolactone targets the herpes virus’ ability to replicate. However, spironolactone goes about doing so differently. Current drugs work to block a middle step in the viral infection cycle by inhibiting virus’ ability to replicate DNA. Spironolactone, however, works by targeting a step that comes later in the infection cycle. Although both accomplish the same goal, this difference is important because it indicates that new treatments may be effective on viral strains that have become resistant to currently available treatment options.

“We think there is a real need for drugs with different mechanisms from the ones we have now,” said Swaminathan. “All the drugs that are clinically available work on the same step of herpes virus replications.”

Because the SM protein exists on all forms of the herpes virus, potential uses for spironolactone may not be limited to just treating EBV. At the moment, spironolactone is not yet ready for use as a herpes virus antiviral. According to Swaminathan, in its current form, spironolactone is far too toxic to use for treating the herpes virus and its side effects range from compromising kidney function to increasing secretion of salt. However, the team is confident that they will be able to separate spironolactone’s heart failure properties from its antiviral properties, making it not only effective but also safe for use.

“We think there is great potential to modify this molecule so that it can work as an antiviral without having undesired side effects," explained Swaminathan in a recent statement. "We think it can be developed it into a new class of antiviral drugs to help overcome the problem of drug resistant infections."

Source: Verma D, Thompson J, Swaninathan S. Spironolactone blocks Epstein–Barr virus production by

inhibiting EBV SM protein function. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2016