A new drug that cures Hepatitis C in less time could bring in a revolution in the treatment of the viral disease which affects millions of people worldwide, researchers claim.
The drug, called boceprevir, has received favourable reviews and is expected to be recommended by an independent panel to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
If the drug gets the go-ahead, it will be the culmination of more than 15 years of research to find a better therapy for a virus that infects nearly 300 three million people in the world.
Produced by New Jersey-based Merck & Co, boceprevir works by blocking a key enzyme, called rotease, which allows the Hepatitis virus to reproduce, the Daily Mail reported.
Vertex Pharmaceuticals in the U.S. is also going to present a similar drug, called telaprevir, before the FDA’s panel.
Both the tablets, experts believe, have the potential to rack up over a billion dollars in annual sales.
They differ from the older medications -- ribavirin pills and interferon-alpha injections -- that are designed to boost the immune system.
Like HIV drugs, the new pills from Merck and Vertex will be prescribed as part of a cocktail with the two older drugs to help lower viral levels.
The current two-drug treatment for the virus cures only about 40 per cent of people and causes side effects like nausea, fatigue and vomiting.
But boceprevir has been shown to boost cure rates to between approximately 60 and 65 per cent when combined with the older drugs, the report said.
According to FDA scientists, two studies submitted by Merck showed patients had undetectable virus levels six months, cutting the standard treatment time in half.
But in their review, they said that some late-responding patients may need to take the drugs for eight months to eliminate the virus.
The FDA also said the primary side effect with Merck’s drug was anaemia, or weakness and fatigue caused by a lack of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.
The FDA often follows the guidance of its panels, though it is not required to do so. The agency is scheduled to make a final decision on the drug in May.
Hepatitis C is a major cause of liver transplants and it kills about 12,000 patients a year in the U.S. alone. It is often associated with users of illegal injectable drugs like heroin. Most patients don’t even know that they have the virus until years later when liver damage has occurred.
“The liver has a huge capacity of going about its business until it fails,” said Dr. Eliav Barr, Merck’s vice president for infectious diseases.
“So you have chronic damage that gets worse and worse but you yourself can’t tell until a fair bit of damage is done.” Dr. Eliav Barr added.