January 21, 2011
2011 is shaping up to be a landmark year for hepatitis C treatment. The Food and Drug Administration this summer could decide on whether to approve two drugs that are the first to directly target the hepatitis C virus (HCV) -- Merck & Co.'s boceprevir and Vertex Pharmaceutical's telaprevir. Taken in combination with standard treatment, the drugs boost the cure rate for the most common form of the virus from 40 percent to as high as 75 percent. And they allow some patients to cut treatment time in half, lessening exposure to grueling side effects.
Experts draw comparisons to the 1990s when potent combination therapies emerged to treat HIV/AIDS. With a treatment revolution on the horizon, federal health officials are considering recommending routine HCV screening for baby boomers, an at-risk group.
"We're entering a whole new era of therapy," said Dr. John Ward, director of the Division of Viral Hepatitis at CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention. "We really want to begin that clarion call for action for this population who's at risk."
Some 3.2 million Americans have chronic HCV. Two-thirds of those with the infection are thought to be baby boomers who have harbored the virus since they were young. Though new US infections have dropped dramatically, HCV's toll is rising because it can take two or three decades for the infection to cause damage. HCV kills about 12,000 US patients annually, a number expected to triple within 20 years.
CDC is studying the feasibility of one-time HCV screening among baby boomers at four hospitals in New York, Detroit, Houston, and Birmingham, Ala. The agency plans to release new guidelines next year.