An experimental new combination of drugs for hepatitis C cures more patients with fewer side effects than the standard treatment for the potentially deadly, liver-destroying infection, researchers say.
The new treatment could give doctors a more potent weapon against the virus at a time when experts are forecasting a surge in cases of hepatitis C liver damage over the next few years.
The experimental treatment includes weekly injections of Pegasys, a long-acting form of interferon call pegylated interferon. It could be approved for U.S. sale next month. A similar drug, Peg-Intron, went on sale last year. Both are given with daily antiviral pills called ribavirin.
Six months after the 48-week treatment stopped, Pegasys and ribavirin together eliminated all traces of the virus in 56 percent of patients.
That compares with 44 percent for patients receiving what had been the standard treatment: ribavirin and thrice-weekly shots of a shorter-acting interferon. Twenty-nine percent of those in a third group who received Pegasys shots and dummy pills were apparently cured.
"This is one of the first times where we have more than half the people we treat have a good response," said lead researcher Dr. Michael W. Fried, director of liver disease treatment at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Pegasys, Peg-Intron and regular interferon have common, serious side effects, including fatigue, flu-like symptoms, nausea, irritability, depression and psychiatric problems. Flu symptoms and depression were slightly less common with Pegasys.
A total of 1,121 patients at 81 medical centers worldwide took part in the study, reported in Thursday's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
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