New Drug May Help Fight Hepatitis C
Dec. 6, 2000 -- A newly-developed form of interferon -- the
gold standard for treating hepatitis C infection -- may offer hope for the
nearly three million U.S. patients suffering from the chronic, potentially
Researchers have found that by attaching a specialized molecule
to the basic form of interferon, they can create a longer-lasting drug that
patients need less of, less often. And peginterferon, as it's called, produces
equally good, or even better, results.
The new findings and an accompanying editorial appear in the
Dec. 7, 2000 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.
This is a way of manipulating a drug to make a current
treatment better, editorialist Daniel F. Schafer, MD, tells WebMD.
"Although it may seem like a small thing in hepatitis C, it will make
things easier and better for patients. The side effects are similar to existing
therapies, and they only have to take a shot once a week instead of three times
per week or even every day. And," he adds, "it works better."
Schafer is associate professor of medicine and an expert in adult liver disease
and transplant at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, in Omaha.
In the first of the two studies, Stefan Zeuzem, MD, and
colleagues randomly assigned nearly 550 chronic hepatitis C patients to weekly
injections of the new drug or to standard interferon injections three times a
week, for 48 weeks. The therapy was deemed successful if tests could not detect
hepatitis C virus in a patient's blood after 72 weeks.
About 10% of patients in both groups withdrew from the study
due to similar side effects -- mainly fatigue, depression, and blood disorders.
But overall, compared to those given the standard interferon treatment,
significantly more patients who'd taken peginterferon had undetectable amounts
of the virus in their blood.
In the second study, E. Jenny Heathcote, MD, and colleagues
randomly assigned nearly 300 hepatitis C patients who had already developed
liver disease called cirrhosis to either standard treatment, or to low or high
doses of peginterferon, again for 48 weeks.
As in the first study, these researchers were hoping to find
undetectable amounts of virus in the blood. In this study, they also looked at
several patients' liver cells. All treatments were equally well tolerated.
Again, more patients taking peginterferon than taking standard
interferon had reduced virus counts in their blood. What's more, their liver
cells also looked significantly better.
Schafer and co-editorialist Michael F. Sorrell, MD, call the
results of both studies "encouraging," noting that even patients with
no decrease in the amount of virus in the blood may still have less liver
damage with either interferon or peginterferon.
Another significant benefit of these drugs, Schafer tells
WebMD, is that "even if you don't respond, there's evidence that it
decreases your chances of getting a certain type of liver cancer --
hepatocellular carcinoma -- that is believed to be a long-term effect of
hepatitis C infection."