A new way to treat Hepatitis C could be available for human use as soon as late 2014, according to novel research conducted by the University of Texas Health Science Centre at San Antonio and the Texas Liver Institute.
The paper was published in the scientific journal New England Journal of Medicine, available to the public to read online.
The study mentions that around 184 million individuals across the globe have the condition, noting its role in chronic liver conditions and the fact that it is responsible for the majority of liver transplant cases worldwide.
Hepatitis C is caused by a virus, infecting only two animal species: humans and chimpanzees. Typically, the pathogen spreads through blood-to-blood contact, and a vaccine, the most effective way to deal with viral agents, is yet to be discovered or produced.
The virus persists in the liver, with patients often developing conditions such as liver cirrhosis (scarring of the liver tissue) and in some rarer cases various cancers.
In order to treat patients with the virus, the most effective drug prescribed is interferon, usually in combination with several other antiviral compounds. This glycoprotein is naturally produced by the immune cells in the human body, which when used as a drug boost the effects of the hosts own immune response.
However, the pathogen is particularly hardy, meaning the viral loads remain in the body, even at minute levels, resulting in patients often relapsing and the feeling the side effects of the multi-drug treatment.
The new drug however is interferon-free, thus removing many the side effects that had been associated with the older treatment, and consists of four separate agents: ABT-450/ritonavir, ombitasvir, dasabuvir and ribavirin. These compounds act as viral enzyme and replication inhibitors, helping prevent the pathogen from replicating and using its enzymes to enter cells and insert its viral DNA into the host cell.
The trial was based around 380 patients diagnosed with a certain stage of liver cirrhosis. They were each randomly assigned a twelve or twenty four week course of the medication.
Those assigned to the former showed particularly promising results. Three months after the final dose of medication was given, 191 of 208 (91.8 percent) of the patients showed zero viral loads in the bloodstream. Of those on the longer treatment course, 165 of 172 (95.9 percent) of the test subjects reported a lack of the virus during blood screening tests.
Importantly, 97.9 percent of the trial members continued with the medication, indicating the side effects are much more manageable than previous multi-medicine treatments, particularly those containing interferon.
Lead author Dr. Fred Poordad, speaking to the press release on the website EurekaAlert!, noted just how effective this new treatment is: “These are out-of-the-ballpark response rates”, he said. He also noted how many people in the study were ineligible to take interferon to treat the condition, such is the complicated nature of the treatment.
Thus, this interferon-free medication means more people with Hepatitis C can be treated.
Dr. Poordad went on to explain how people with certain advanced liver conditions such as cirrhosis can now be treated with shorter and better tolerated medication regimes, thus increasing the efficacy of the treatment process.
Seeing as this was a stage three clinical trial, one of the more advanced points in the testing of a novel drug, the combination medication could be available for human use as soon as late 2014.
How would this novel medication impact global health services?