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New drugs promise cure for hepatitis C


A cure is on the horizon for a disease about to come crashing down on baby boomers.

It is estimated that 10 percent of Vietnam veterans came home with hepatitis C. The estimate for boomers overall is 1.2 million. Two-thirds of them, 800,000 people, don't know they have it.

"They are carrying a ticking time bomb, a disease that is going to affect them, and most of them don't know they have it," said Dr. Richard Gilroy, Director of Liver Transplants at University of Kansas Hospital.

Up until now, some people who tested positive were faced with something untreatable. For them, the knowledge was more stressful than valuable.

The existing drug regimens involve a pill and an injection. The pill caused anemia. The injection caused immune malfunction and depression. Patients taking the medication could die from infection or face depression so severe they committed suicide.

An alternative was to get a transplant, but waiting lists are a challenge, and a transplant is not a permanent solution.

"Thirty percent of the people transplanted need another liver in five years," Gilroy said.

Gilroy said there are 12,000 people nationwide waiting to get a liver transplant, and 6,000 are available.

In Kansas, he says, there are 150 on the list and 110 that get done. That is between a third and half of the people being turned away.

Jack Bowen found out about his hepatitis C in 2002.

He thinks he got it when he was coaching little league softball. He was retrieving a stray softball in some brush and was accidentally stuck by a syringe.

He was not a candidate for the earlier drugs because of other medical problems. He got a liver transplant in 2005.

The clock is ticking again before that liver fails, and the answer may have come just in time. That answer comes in the form of two pills, made by two different drug manufacturers, that will likely hit pharmacy shelves early next year.

"The new therapies are unlike anything else we've ever seen," Gilroy said. "It's exciting times."

The new drug regimen is far more effective and has shown none of the horrible side effects the previous one did. It's also a much shorter and more convenient treatment.

The previous treatment required 24-48 months. The new treatment involves half that time.

"Once a day, two tablets and the cure rates are impressive," Gilroy said.

The success rate of the old regimen was 40-66 percent, depending on the population.

The further along the disease had progressed, the less likely it worked. The new regimen, in trials, had a success rate of 96 percent.

Success in this case is not suppression of symptoms or improvement of the liver but a literal cure.

Taken daily for 12-24 weeks, Gilroy says, nearly all the patients no longer had the virus.

"Thousands of people treated with the new drugs, Gilroy said of the trials. "Nearly everyone cured."

For Jack Bowen, the prospect of a cure is a blessing.

"Maybe I will live long enough to see my grandkids graduate from high school," Bowen said. "That would be nice."

The Food and Drug Administration gave a preliminary go-ahead two weeks ago.

Gilroy expects approval to come in the next week. He says the drugs probably won't be available to patients until early next year. The cost of the drug is still unclear.

"We assume it's going to be very expensive," said Gilroy of the conventional wisdom. "However I expect it won't be as expensive as people perceive because for some of the companies, the share prices went up so much on the expectation that I don't anticipate they are going to have to charge enormous amounts of money. You will have to probably pay more than the current therapies but for a shorter duration."

With the new drug coming out, he says, there is no better time to get tested, because now anyone testing positive can take action in relatively short order.

The University of Kansas Hospital offers free testing for hepatitis C. Just call the hospital to make arrangements.

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