Clinical trials have begun on a potent new drug which is being developed to treat infections caused by the Hepatitis C virus.

Approximately 170 million people worldwide are affected with Hepatitis C, which can lead to liver cancer, cirrhosis and death. It is the leading cause of liver transplantation in western countries.

The current treatment involves two drugs — Ribavirin and Interferon, which has to be given as an injection. Side effects are often severe and lead to patients failing to complete the treatment.

The new drug, INX-189, is taken orally and was first prepared at the Welsh School of Pharmacy in November 2008.

Lab tests showed it killed 90 percent of the virus at very low concentrations, making it one of the most potent compounds of its kind developed till now.

U.S. pharmaceutical company Inhibitex, which owns the licence to INX-189 and has been working with the Cardiff team, has now started trials on healthy volunteers to assess the compound’s safety. A second trial, which would evaluate the compound’s effectiveness on Hepatitis C patients, may follow later this year.

Chris McGuigan, professor at the Cardiff University’s Welsh School of Pharmacy, the academic lead on the project, said: “This is still a very early stage of the trial process. However, progress has been encouraging so far, going from the laboratory to human trials within 18 months.”

“We believe that INX-189 offers the possibility of more potency against Hepatitis, more rapid action in the liver, and fewer side effects than existing treatments,” a Cardiff release quoted McGuigan as saying.

Cardiff University and Inhibitex filed a patent on INX-189 earlier this year. It has been cleared for human clinical trials by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

More In: Health | Sci-Tech | Medicine