SANTA CRUZ, Calif. -- A noted organic chemist has developed an extract from marine algae found along the California coast that he says shows preliminary promise in relieving the painful symptoms of herpes infections.
Scientists caution the Dumontiaceae red algae extract is not a cure for the disease that in various forms afflicts nearly one in 10 Americans. And they say more extensive testing is needed to confirm the early findings.
But all 10 volunteers tested since 1982 experienced a marked reduction in the frequency of outbreaks and severity of symptoms from either herpes virus simplex 1 (facial herpes) or simplex 2 (sexually transmitted genital herpes).
'Taken as a food supplement, one gram per day for several days at the onset of a herpes recurrence, the extract has had remarkable effects on even very extreme outbreaks,' said Dr. Raphael Pappo, a chemist who holds more than 80 patents on medical and horticultural products and inventions.
The test subjects have been free from recurrences for as long as six months, compared to the monthly or more frequent episodes suffered before treatment.
The human trials culminate a decade of research begun by the U.S. Navy and the University of California and taken over by Pappo in 1980 when he left the chemistry department at pharmaceutical giant G.D. Searle & Co. after 26 years to devote his time exclusively to herpes research.
'We don't want to come across as though we have the problem solved,' Pappo said in an interview, 'but we know we are making major headway' in the fight against the disease that afflicts an estimated 20 million Americans, with some 300,000 to 500,000 new cases reported annually.
Other experts in the flourishing field of herpes research said although the extract may offer the type of dramatic relief attested to by its users, Pappo's study was not scientifically controlled and has not been published in a scientific journal for peer analysis.
'I would be cautious about any study done without the scientific control of giving one group the drug and another test group a placebo to compare results,' Dr. Andre Nahmias, chief of infectious diseases and immunology at Emory University in Atlanta, said in a telephone interview.
Since Pappo and two colleagues at Terra Mar Botanicals, based in the coastal town of Santa Cruz, some 80 miles south of San Francisco, have been paying for almost all of the research out of their own pockets, the chemist said he forewent a controlled study partly because of the expense.
The test subjects uniformly reported no ill side effects and far greater benefits than from any other treatment.
A 29-year-old Mill Valley, Calif., woman who worked as a counselor and health educator before being debilitated by severe genital herpes recalled her regular bouts with high fever, exhaustion, intense pain, burning during urination, swelling and '10 to 15 angry fluid-filled lesions.'
First afflicted 12 years ago, the woman who asked not to be identified said she tried everything from creams and vitamins to acyclovir -- the only drug approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration for herpes treatment.
Her condition worsened to the point where 'I had herpes almost nonstop until I took the algae product in February 1984.'
Now, she breaks out only once every five or six weeks, she said, and 'the pain and fever are almost gone, and I have no more swollen glands.'
The extract also brought relief to a 32-year-old Temple, Ariz., daughter of a noted scientist and wife of a physician. Since age 10, she suffered from herpes cold sores that would form on her mouth every six weeks.
The former social worker recalled 'horrible episodes' of headaches, earaches, sore throat, fever that lasted for two weeks at a time.
'It was like a plague,' she said. 'I tried everything, with no success, until Dr. Pappo, a friend of my father's, sent me some of the compound. It sounds really dramatic, but my whole life changed.'
The herpes virus has defied efforts at finding a cure. Drugs like acyclovir can speed healing of lesions during initial outbreaks of the disease, but they do not eliminate the virus and have unknown long-term side effects.
At least four herpes vaccines are under development, and the FDA has given permission for clinical testing of more than 50 products.
For Pappo and his team, the answer lies in plant chemistry.
'Current medications must be taken daily without fully knowing the side effects,' said David Gamel, co-founder of Terra Mar. 'We believe our type of approach for treating herpes infection is healthier and more natural.'
Pappo has found the extract 'has some property we have not yet identified that appears to benefit the immune system' and is trying to identify that property and the algae's mode of action.