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Most With Hepatitis C May Soon Find Hope in New Treatments

Two studies suggest pill cocktails may one day replace injections altogether

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Up until now, injectable interferon has been the key form of treatment, usually combined with antiviral medications, said Sulkowski, but many patients can't tolerate the side effects of the interferon, which can include flu-like symptoms, nausea, fatigue, anxiety and depression.

The second study, headed up by researchers at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, involved more than eight medical centers in the United States and internationally. It included 571 patients with hepatitis C, some of whom had not received treatment previously and others who had previously received standard treatments with interferon injections and ribavirin -- an antiviral drug that when given reduces relapses -- but had not responded to them.

The participants were randomly assigned to take any of three combinations of antiviral pills -- medications called ABT-450, ABT-267, and ABT-333 -- for eight, 12 or 24 weeks.

Almost all of the patients (more than 93 percent in both groups) saw the virus cleared from their systems within 24 weeks, said lead author Dr. Kris Kowdley, director of the liver center of excellence in the Digestive Disease Institute at Virginia Mason.

"Even in patients with prior no-response, a difficult-to-treat population with interferon, this all-oral regimen for 12 weeks can achieve a cure in the vast majority of patients. It is safe and well-tolerated," said Kowdley. "It really changes the paradigm for treatments."

Dr. Anna Lok, director of clinical hepatology at the University of Michigan Medical School, and a co-author on the Hopkins study, said, "These two regimens have excellent safety profiles." But she noted, the drugs are expensive, up to thousands of dollars per treatment course.

"Cost is an issue, and will make these treatments not accessible to many patients," said Lok.

Drug makers funded both studies, but Lok noted, "They scrutinize the data carefully and these data will be scrutinized by the FDA also, so I would trust the data presented."

Muir said the next step is to keep pushing for better hepatitis C screening, so that patients can receive treatments before their livers fail. "Anybody we can catch when they have stable liver disease, we can help," he said.

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