Faster, Cheaper Hep C Cures on the Horizon?

By Brenda Goodman, MA
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH

Nov. 10, 2015 -- In an ecstatic post to her Instagram followers yesterday, Pamela Anderson revealed that she's been cured of hepatitis C.

She's short on specifics, but tells other people who are infected not to lose hope and promises that the cure she got "will be more available soon."

Is she right?

To find out, we reached out to Raymond Schinazi, PhD. He's the director of the Laboratory of Biochemical Pharmacology at Emory University in Atlanta.

Schinazi has had a hand in developing five lifesaving antiviral drugs, including sofosbuvir (Sovaldi), one of several new treatments that can wipe out hepatitis C infections in nearly everybody who takes them. (He reportedly made $440 million when he sold the rights to that drug to the pharmaceutical company Gilead.)

Now Schinazi says he's figured out a way to shrink the treatment time for some hep C patients from 12 to 3 weeks. Most importantly, the shorter regimen, which relies on a combination of three drugs instead of two, could cut the cost of a cure by 60%.

Right now, the two-drug combo Harvoni -- a combination of sofosbuvir and another antiviral drug called ledipasvir, which was approved by the FDA last year -- costs $1,125 per pill. People take it for about 12 weeks, bringing the total tab for treatment to $94,500. That puts hope of a cure out of reach for many.

Schinazi didn't say which drugs were in the experimental treatment, but he says they each work in a slightly different way to keep the virus from being able to copy itself.

"These are three of the most potent drugs available. You put them all together and you blow the virus away, basically. It has no way to escape," he says.

Schinazi and his collaborators gave slightly different versions of this three-drug cocktail to 26 people who were infected with the 1b strain of the hepatitis C virus, which accounts for about 46% of infections worldwide and about 25% of infections in the U.S.

After 2 days, people in the study were given a blood test to see how they were responding to the meds. About 18 had huge drops in their levels of the virus, and they were told to stop taking their medications after 3 weeks. The other eight continued to take the medication for a full 12 weeks.

After 12 weeks, all the study participants, even the people who took the shorter course of treatment, showed no signs of virus in their blood. If people continue to be free of the virus after 24 weeks -- and most who are clear at 12 weeks continue to be clear at 24 weeks -- they are considered cured.

The researchers are slated to present the results of this study later this week at the annual meeting of the American Association of the Study of Liver Diseases in San Francisco. Study results presented at medical meetings are considered preliminary since they haven't yet been vetted by outside experts.

The next step, Schinazi says, will be testing the cocktail in more people and also in people who have different strains of the virus. "This work needs to be expanded," he says.

Other researchers are also testing shorter courses of treatment with three-drug combos.

For example, a 2015 study compared two different three-drug cocktails to a standard 12-week course of treatment with Harvoni. After 6 weeks on the three-drug cocktails, 19 of the 20 patients, or 95%, in each group were considered cured.

Schinazi says none of the other combinations have been as successful as the cocktail he helped test, though.

But it may not be the first to market either.

Each of the drugs he used is made by a different company. Schinazi says none of the companies wanted them tested together because they're all working on other combinations involving their own drugs.

"We took the best available drugs and put them together," he says.

"We took a huge risk. We did not get sponsorship from anybody. We paid for the study ourselves," he says.

He says companies will have to come to terms to be able to offer the cocktail to patients in a single pill.

"This is the wave of the future, what everyone should be focused on," Schinazi says.

"As I get older, I don't have time to develop drugs that treat," he says. "I want to cure everything."

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors

SOURCE: Raymond Schinazi, PhD, ScD, director, Laboratory of Biochemical Pharmacology, Emory University, Atlanta.

©2015 WebMD, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors