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Hepatitis C Treatments on the Horizon

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD

In October, the FDA approved a drug that can cure hepatitis C quicker than ever before -- and with fewer side effects. Plus, more effective drugs are on the horizon.

“A number of companies are trying to develop other drugs with greater ease of administration and cost,” says Thomas D. Boyer, MD. He's the director of the Liver Research Institute at the University of Arizona Medical Center in Tucson.

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Easy-to-Swallow Breakthrough

The latest drug to be approved, Harvoni (ledipasvir and sofosbuvir), is a once-a-day pill that can cure hepatitis C in eight, 12, or 24 weeks (depending on the individual) with mild side effects. Before Harvoni was approved, most people with hepatitis C needed interferon, a drug that you inject once a week, combined with pills. This wasn't an ideal treatment: People don't like to inject themselves, and interferon has serious side effects, like fever, nausea, and depression. Today, most hepatitis C patients can take Harvoni instead of interferon.

“It's a very exciting time for hepatitis C treatment,” says Jonathan M. Fenkel, MD, director of the Hepatitis C Center at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. “Harvoni is an excellent drug with a high cure rate and very few side effects. It's one pill a day, which for most patients is very easy to take.”

More Pills On the Way

Within the next year, the FDA should approve three or four drugs that can cure hepatitis C by mouth, not needle. And even more are expected in the next 2 years. Like Harvoni, all will combine two or more types of medicine in each pill.

“It's a cocktail therapy - a number of drugs that target different viral proteins,” says virologist Stephen J. Polyak, PhD. He's a research professor in the department of laboratory medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle. “The harder that you can hit a virus and knock it down, hit it in multiple places, the more you can keep it suppressed.”

Because the hepatitis C virus can mutate, one type of medicine can't cure the disease on its own -- two or more are needed.

“They all attack the virus in different sites,” Boyer says. “You can't give a single drug for hepatitis C; it will just mutate and become resistant.”

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