Feb. 12, 2003 (Boston) -- Six months of treatment with the hepatitis C drug Peg-Intron dramatically reduced active virus in newly infected HIV patients, boosting their immune systems at the same time, according to pilot study results released Wednesday.
HIV patients who took the drug had a more than 800% decline in the active virus -- or viral load in their cells -- and also increased immune cells called CD-4 cells by more than 30%. Norbert H. Brockmeyer, MD, professor of medicine, Ruhr University, Bochum, Germany tells WebMD the results were so impressive that his group is now conducting a larger study that combines Peg-Intron with standard HIV treatment.
He says the drug works two ways: by fighting the AIDS virus and aiding the immune system, which was damaged by the virus.
Peg-Intron, or pegylated interferon alfa-2b, was a major breakthrough for treatment of hepatitis C recently because it allows once-a-week treatment rather than daily injections of interferon. In addition to enduring daily shots, the standard interferon treatment is associated with a number of side effects including headache, fatigue, flu-like symptoms, and depression. Peg-Intron can cause these same side effects but they are usually limited.
Brockmeyer says he thinks Peg-Intron is especially well tolerated at low doses. In his study of newly infected HIV patients the dose was 80 micrograms, about half of the standard dose.
Robert Schooley, MD, of the University of Colorado Health Center Denver, tells WebMD Brockmeyer's results are very impressive and adds that other AIDS researchers are also studying the long-acting interferon. Schooley, who was not associated with the study, says typically interferon studies "report more side effects so this is a little surprising," but he says ease of treatment may be due to the low dose Brockmeyer used.
Richard Pollard, MD, chief of infectious disease at the University of California, Davis, says he and his colleagues are conducting a dose escalation study of Pegasys, another long-acting interferon drug. He says his group is studying the drug as an add-on to standard HIV treatment.
But both Pollard and Schooley caution against too much enthusiasm for interferon since Brockmeyer's positive results are based on a very small study of 10 patients who were in the early stage of HIV infection. All of the patients were symptom-free and had received no HIV treatment. Five of the patients, all men, were assigned to the Peg-Intron treatment group and five were assigned to a control group. The control group included two women.
The Peg-Intron patients received an injection of the drug once a week for 24 weeks.
At baseline, the average CD-4 count in the group that received Peg-Intron was 462 while the average baseline CD-4 count in the control group was 535. After six months the average CD-4 count in the treatment group had increased to 611 while the average CD-4 count in the control group had dropped to 450.
The differences in viral loads, a term that refers to the amount of HIV circulating in the blood, dropped from 22,158 copies/ml to 3,039 copies/ml. At the same time the viral load in the control-group patients escalated from 7,136 copies/ml to 40,092 copies.