People with advanced hepatitis C infections live just as long as their healthy peers who don’t have the liver virus, provided they get treatment to eliminate the disease, researchers said.
The report, published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association, suggests that even patients who are already showing signs of liver damage from the virus can fully recover. Patients who weren’t cured had markedly shorter lives, the study from the Netherlands found.
The publication comes amid controversy over the cost of a new generation of medicines, which have better cure rates and fewer side effects than past treatments yet that also come with high prices. Gilead Sciences Inc.’s Harvoni has shown cure rates of more than 90 percent and costs more than $1,000 a pill. Gilead and other drugmakers say the expense is justified by reducing the virus’s long-term complications.
The findings “should motivate a broad spectrum of healthcare workers to be alert for hepatitis C infection,” said Adriann van der Meer, the lead author from Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam. “Even in case of cirrhosis you are not too late to do something about this disease.”
About 3.2 million Americans have hepatitis C, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus can be symptomless for years before eventually damaging the liver, which can cause the organ’s failure or cancer.
No More Injections The study involving 530 patients began before medicines like Gilead’s Harvoni were approved. It relied instead on older combination drugs that included interferon, an expensive injection that can cause severe flu-like symptoms. The new medicines don’t need the injections to get a cure, called a sustained virologic responseand marked by the absence of virus in the blood six months after treatment is complete.
The 10-year survival rate was 91 percent for patients who experienced a sustained virologic response, about the same as expected among people the same age and gender in the general population, the researchers said. Only 74 percent of those who still showed signed of infection lived for another decade.
The results should be confirmed when interferon-free therapies are more widely used since they may be able to cure patients with the most advanced disease, van der Meer said in an e-mailed response to questions. Those patients may be too sick to return their life expectancy to normal, he said.
The study was funded by the Foundation for Liver and Gastrointestinal Research in the Netherlands. The seven authors all reported receiving compensation for lecturing, consulting or other activities conducted on behalf of drugmakers working on hepatitis C treatments, including Gilead.
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