FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Doctors and researchers almost never use the word “cure,” but they came as close as they ever do Monday when describing a combination of two drugs used to treat the severe liver disease hepatitis C.
Among some patients, the drug cocktail of pegylated interferon and ribavirin completely kills the virus that causes hepatitis C, and keeps it from coming back, doctors said in reporting their new study at a Digestive Disease Weekly conference in Washington, D.C.
The catch is, the drug combo does not work in about half of people with hepatitis C, and researchers still are not sure why it works so completely for some but fails in others. Also, the combo has difficult side effects.
“I call it a cure. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it has the ability to eradicate this virus, and this study is the best evidence to prove that,” said Dr. Eugene Schiff, director of the center for liver diseases at the University of Miami medical school, who was attending the conference but not involved in the study.
The findings of the six-nation study, headed in the U.S. by Virginia Commonwealth University, solidifies the drug combination as the top treatment for the virus, which has infected about 4 million Americans.
The virus spreads only via direct contact with infected blood. Most cases stem from blood transfusions before 1992 and intravenous needle use, but the virus also can occasionally be passed through sex.
The new study followed 997 patients who had cleared the virus from their systems while taking the drug combo for almost a year. Of those, 99 percent remained virus-free an average of four years after they stopped taking the drugs, and as long as seven years later.
But the drug combo only defeats the virus in about 40 percent of those infected with the most common strain of hepatitis C, which accounts for two-thirds of cases. African Americans and those with serious cirrhosis of the liver are less likely than average to do well. The drugs succeed about 80 percent of the time against other strains of the virus.
The side effects from the drugs can be serious. Most people experience little more than flulike symptoms, but small numbers report hair loss, depression, moodiness, sharp anemia, and in rare cases, heart and kidney failure, suicidal thoughts and even death.