Two studies show that adding an experimental drug, boceprevir to the existing two-drug treatment for hepatitis C appears remarkably more effective than the standard therapy.

The current treatment for hepatitis C, a chronic liver infection, is by using the antivirals peginterferon and ribavirin. But when researchers combined them with boceprevir, they found that it drastically increased the response rate.

Dr. Donald M. Jensen, a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago Medical Center, has stated that there has been a remarkable progress in continued response with boceprevir and its potential to cure hepatitis C.

Boceprevir is currently under review by the Food and Drug Administration. Its manufacturer, Merck, sponsored the two studies published in the March 31 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Both new boceprevir studies were started with hundreds of hepatitis C patients receiving a 4-week course of the current standard medication of peginterferon and ribavirin. Later the patients were randomly administered to receive boceprevir or a placebo without having any knowledge about what they were getting.

After 44 weeks of treatment, patients getting boceprevir were two to three times more likely to kill the virus in the blood compared to those patients getting only the standard dual-drug therapy.

Both the studies confirmed almost identical results. While one study recruited previously treated hepatitis C patients while the other had only patients who were never treated for the infection.

The studies showed viral clearance rates of about 33 percent among those getting the triple therapy, compared to only 21 to 38 percent among those getting the standard regimen.

Fred Poordad, a hepatologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and a co-author of both studies, stated that if the virus does not reappear within six months after treatment, almost all patients will be completely cured of the virus.

The drug works only on genotype 1 hepatitis C, which accounts for about 75 percent of all hepatitis C cases in the U.S.

Side effects

In both the studies, the most serious side effect was anaemia with nearly half of patients who got boceprevir. Although anaemia is treatable, nearly all patients in both studies reported other side effects including fatigue, headache and nausea whilst on the drug regimen.

The studies have also revealed that boceprevir can cause an altered metallic sense of taste.

Facts on hepatitis C

  • Hepatitis C affects at least 3.2 million Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • More than 12,000 people die each year from liver disease and cancer caused by hepatitis C

1)The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention