New drug promising for hepatitis C patients

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PHOENIX – For the first time in 20 years, the Food and Drug Administration has approved a new drug for hepatitis C.

Dr. Art Mollen sat down with Scott Pasmore to talk about the new drug and what it will mean for patients.

Victrelis, made by Merck, is part of a new class of hepatitis C drugs called protease inhibitors. In essence, Victrelis and a similar drug called telaprevir, which is expected FDA approval in the near future, block an essential enzyme that the virus must have to replicate.

Hepatitis C is a debilitating disease. Victrelis and similar drugs are expected to make the disease manageable for most patients.

According to two clinical trials, the results of were published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Victrelis doubled the number of newly infected patients who were effectively cured, and it tripled the response rate in those for whom previous therapies have not worked.

Hepatitis C is spread through the blood. Anybody who has had a blood transfusion or stayed in hospital could be at risk. Those with tattoos and piercings could also contract hepatitis C, as could those who share personal items.

Many patients don’t even realize they’ve developed the disease. As many as 300 million people worldwide could have hepatitis C, including some 100,000 right here in Arizona.

“Only about 50 percent of these people even know that they have hepatitis C,” Mollen said. “That’s simply because the symptoms can be very mild.”

Symptoms of hepatitis C include abdominal pain, tiredness, joint pain, itchy skin, dark urine and yellowish eyes.

Hepatitis C – chronic infectious hepatitis – can last for years. “People may have it for 10 to 15 years before the even know that they actually said it,” Mollen said. “But they have to be treated because it can turn into cirrhosis of the liver and potentially liver cancer. It’s very, very dangerous.”

FDA approved Victrelis for use with current hepatitis C drugs peginterferon-alpha and ribavirin.

While previous treatment took about 48 weeks, Victrelis cuts that treatment time nearly in half.

Side effects of the combination therapy include fatigue, anemia, nausea, headache and taste distortion.

Merck has not announced what the new drug will cost patients, but current therapies run about $28,000 per year. The Victrelis will be an additional cost since it’s used in conjunction with the existing medications, but it’s thought that many insurance companies will foot the bills because the drug is so effective.