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New Drug Combo Helps Hard-to-Treat Hepatitis C

NIH study focused largely on black patients, who haven't fared as well with current treatments

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All of the patients were given sofosbuvir, an oral drug, plus either low-dose ribavirin or a dose adjusted to their weight. After 24 weeks of treatment, 68 percent of those given the weight-based ribavirin had a "sustained virologic response," which equates to a cure, Schiff said.

Of the patients in the low-dose group, 48 percent were cured.

Headache, anemia, fatigue and nausea were the most common side effects, affecting anywhere from 16 percent to 33 percent of the patients. But none dropped out of treatment due to side effects, the researchers said.

Fauci agreed that drug regimens that bypass both interferon and ribavirin are the wave of the future. "The ultimate goal is to have a drug combination that would be nontoxic and have a high cure rate," he said.

The drugs under development also are expected to cut the treatment time from up to 48 weeks to 12 weeks or less, Schiff said.

More than 3 million Americans are living with chronic hepatitis C, but most don't know it, Fauci said. "That's why there's a big push for screening," he said.

U.S health officials recommend that all baby boomers (people born from 1945 to 1965) get tested for chronic hepatitis C infection. The virus is mainly transmitted through infected blood, and injection-drug use is the top risk factor. But people who had a blood transfusion before 1992 also are at risk, because that predated widespread screening for hepatitis C.

In a small number of cases, the virus is passed during sex.

Schiff agreed that people would need to be screened for the new drug regimens to effectively prevent cases of liver cirrhosis and cancer. Only a small number of people with chronic hepatitis C develop those complications, but there is no way to predict any one person's course.

Treating all those people with the new drugs coming to market will be expensive, Schiff said. "But it's highly likely they'll be cured," he added. "And you'll be curing a disease that causes cirrhosis and cancer."

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