BOSTON--A common herpes virus that infects healthy adults but rarely harms them--cytomegalovirus (CMV)--is now being recognized as a major threat to newborns. More than 40,000 children in the United States are infected with CMV at birth each year, and as many as 8000 of them suffer major consequences, including hearing loss and reduced IQ, says clinical researcher Richard Whitley of the University of Alabama, Birmingham.
Speaking here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (publisher of ScienceNOW), Whitley estimated the national economic loss due to CMV at more than $1 billion a year. Whitley says this makes it one of the greatest health risks for U.S. children--comparable to infectious agents such as Haemophilus influenzae that received far more attention in the past.
CMV infection, which often coexists with HIV, attracted the attention of drug companies in the 1990s. When HIV infection rates were climbing, the pharmaceutical R&D investment in this area increased in parallel. But when more effective combination drug therapies began to reduce HIV incidence, CMV infections dropped in parallel; records show a sharp drop off in opportunistic CMV infections of the eye (CMV retinitis) in adults starting in 1997. Since then, Whitley and other speakers said, drug companies have been cutting back on support for anti-CMV drugs because the potential market has declined.
The drugs now available for treating CMV, Whitley and other researchers at the AAAS meeting noted, are far from ideal. They cause life-threatening side effects and must be injected intravenously (or in the case of CMV retinitis, directly into the eye). Whitley and several other speakers--including Leroy Townsend of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Karen Biron of SmithKline Beecham--described new compounds they are helping to develop which might eventually be used as oral medicines to combat CMV. None has yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.