Hepatitis C Treatments

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At the 2012 meeting of the American Association for the Study of Liver Disease in Boston, the results of many trials of new drugs were presented that suggest that it soon may be possible to eradicate hepatitis C virus in almost all infected patients with fewer side effects from drugs and with shorter durations of treatment. The prevention of infection with hepatitis C virus ultimately will require the development of a vaccine to prevent spread of infection; however, the development of a vaccine has been difficult to realize.

Chronic infection with hepatitis C virus is a serious problem. Hepatitis C virus will become a chronic infection in up to 85% of persons infected with the virus. Although the number of new cases of chronic infection with hepatitis C virus has decreased from a high of 200,000 to 7,000 yearly, over the past 10 to 15 years a large pool of chronically infected patients--approximately three million in the U.S.--has developed that needs treatment. Chronic infection leads to cirrhosis of the liver and ultimately to failure of the liver, liver cancer, and life-threatening gastrointestinal bleeding. At these later stages, the only effective treatment has been transplantation of the liver, and hepatitis C virus has become the leading reason for transplantation of the liver in the U.S.

Treatment of chronic hepatitis C virus until now has utilized two types of drugs in combination. One type, interferon, targets an infected person's immune system, stimulating the immune system to attack the virus. The second type of drug, ribavirin (Rebetol, Copegus), interferes with the production of the ribonucleic acid (RNA) that makes up the genetic material of hepatitis C virus. The genetic material of hepatitis C virus is responsible for taking over the infected human cells and directing the cells to produce more virus, at the same time interfering with normal function of the cells. If the genetic material cannot be reproduced, no new virus forms, and the spread of virus to other cells in the body is halted. Unfortunately, however, existing virus remains. (The patient still is infected.)

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