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Experimental Drug May Treat Hepatitis C

Study Shows Drug May Be Effective in Patients Chronically Infected With Hepatitis C Virus
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

April 21, 2010 -- An experimental oral drug is showing early promise for the treatment of chronic hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection, a study shows.

In preliminary research published this week in Nature, researchers from Bristol-Myers Squibb -- the maker of the drug -- report that patients who took the drug showed dramatic reductions in viral load while exhibiting few side effects.

The research is so early that the drug hasn't been named. It is known as BMS-790052.

But the study provides the first clinical evidence that targeting the HCV protein NS5A may be an effective strategy for curing patients who are chronically infected with the HCV virus, says Nicholas A. Meanwell, PhD, who is executive director of chemistry with Bristol-Myers Squibb.

Chronic HCV infection is a leading cause of liver cirrhosis, liver cancer, and liver failure and is the leading reason for liver transplants in the U.S.

The current treatment for chronic HCV -- intravenously administered peg-interferon and ribavirin -- cures about half of people with genotype 1 who take it. But many patients find they cannot tolerate months of treatment with interferon, which can cause anemia and severe flu-like symptoms.

Cure rates are lower for people with HCV genotype 1, which includes about 70% of Americans chronically infected with hepatitis C virus; and they are lower still for people who do not respond well to initial treatment.

"It is clear that other treatments are needed," Meanwell tells WebMD. "What we are developing, and a lot of other companies too, are small molecule antiviral agents that specifically target the virus."

In fact, no fewer than 90 studies are currently underway examining different HCV-targeting drugs. Two of these drugs, Vertex Pharmaceutical's telaprevir and Merck's boceprevir, are in the final stages of study and may make it to the market as early as next year.

A unique thing about the NS5A-targeting drug, according to Meanwell, is that laboratory studies show it to be effective against all HCV genotypes.

'Cocktail' HCV Treatment Coming?

Meanwell says future HCV treatments will most likely involve a combination of drugs that specifically target the virus, similar to the "cocktail" approach now used to suppress HIV infection.

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