HCV triumph: Taming the silent killer

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For patients with hepatitis C, the only available treatment up till now has limited efficacy and debilitating side effects. But that is all about to change.

In a rather astounding coincidence, 22 years after the hepatitis C virus (HCV) was discovered, both Vertex’s telaprivir and Merck-Schering’s boceprivir are expected to receive FDA approval next month. These drugs will be the first two specific antiviral agents against the disease.

Boceprevir and telaprivir are protease inhibitors, which target a key step in the life cycle of the virus, preventing it from reproducing. Patients taking either drug, plus interferon (IFN) and ribavirin, the current standard of care, showed dramatically reduced viral loads (about 70%), which is a significant improvement over IFN-ribavirin alone (40%).

In the U.S., almost four million people are living with chronic Hepatitis C and about 30,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. Most people, however, do not know they are even infected until they suffer liver problems — such as cirrhosis or liver cancer — which are often not apparent until decades later. The worldwide prevalence is estimated to be 3 to 4 percent of the population, about four-fold greater than AIDS, making hepatitis C a critical public health problem.

ACSH’s Dr. Josh Bloom, who worked in this area for ten years, comments on the pending approvals. “The HCV strategy was based on the same approach used to create the highly-effective AIDS drugs, although it took twice as long. Nonetheless, this is a hallmark moment for medicinal chemistry and pharmaceutical research, and I’m sure many lives will be saved, since unlike AIDS, hepatitis C can be cured.”