Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Study Suggests Cure for Hepatitis C

(HealthDay News) -- Researchers are reporting a potential "cure" for hepatitis C, a blood-borne viral infection that's the leading cause of cirrhosis, liver cancer and the need for liver transplants in the United States.

Use of the drug peginterferon, either alone or in combination with the drug ribavirin, reduced levels of the virus to undetectable levels for up to seven years, the researchers said.

"This paper strongly suggests, for the first time, that hepatitis C is a curable disease," said lead researcher Dr. Mitchell Shiffman, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine and chief of hepatology and medical director of the school's Liver Transplant Program. "After treatment, 99.6 percent of the patients remained virus undetectable for over five years," he added.

In the study, 997 patients with hepatitis C or with both hepatitis C and HIV were treated with either Pegasys (peginterferon alfa-2a) alone or in tandem with ribavirin. Shiffman's team then monitored blood levels of hepatitis C once a year for an average of 4.1 years, and as long as seven years.

The researchers found that 99 percent of patients with hepatitis C who were treated successfully with peginterferon alone, or in combination with ribavirin, had no detectable virus up to seven years later.

"This is the first long-term study that confirms what we believed for many years that these individuals are truly cured of hepatitis C," Shiffman said.

The remaining eight patients tested positive for hepatitis C at an average of two years after treatment. There was no pattern to the patients as far as age, gender or hepatitis C genotype. It isn't known whether these patients had a relapse or were re-infected with the virus, the researchers noted.

The findings were to be presented Monday at the 38th annual Digestive Disease Week conference, in Washington, D.C.

Hepatitis C is a blood-borne infectious disease of the liver and is one of the most important causes of chronic liver disease in the United States. An estimated 4.1 million Americans have been infected with hepatitis C, and 3.2 million are chronically infected. The number of new infections each year declined from an average of 240,000 in the 1980s to about 26,000 in 2004, the latest year for which statistics are available. The number of hepatitis C-related deaths could increase to 38,000 a year by the year 2010, surpassing annual HIV/AIDS deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The virus is usually spread through contact with infected blood and blood products. Blood transfusions and the use of shared, unsterilized, or poorly sterilized needles, syringes and injection equipment have been the main routes of transmission in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Most people who have hepatitis C don't know they have it, Shiffman said. "Of those who have been diagnosed, only about 25 percent have received treatment, because of the side effects of treatment," he said. "The reason why you should treat it is because you can cure hepatitis C, and we finally have the data to definitively document it."

Dr. Eugene Schiff, chief of the division of hepatology and professor of medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, agrees that most cases of hepatitis C can be cured.
"In contrast to hepatitis B or HIV, this virus can be totally eradicated and cured," he said.

But, many patients find the side effects of treatment off-putting. Those side effects can include fever and chills, Shiff said. "You feel pretty lousy. After treatment starts, you feel worse the day after your shot, but it tapers off over the course of the week," he said. "Along with that anxiety, irritability and Depression can develop. And we are quick to use antidepressants to allow these people to stay on the medication."

Additional side effects include a drop in the production of white blood cells and anemia. Often patients are giving additional drugs to combat these conditions, Shiff said.

Treatments can go on for as many as 72 weeks, depending on the reaction to therapy Shiff said. "Some people are reluctant to get treatment, because they heard that the treatment isn't so pleasant," he said. "But they should come out and get treatment."

Schiff noted that new antiviral drugs to treat hepatitis C are being tested. "It is hoped that these new antivirals will be more effective and have less severe side effects and may even be used without peginterferon alfa-2a or ribavirin," he said.

More information
For more on hepatitis C, visit the U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

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