Medical Advances: Wiping Out Hepatitis C

June 6, 2011 9:49:54 AM PDT
About 4 million Americans are infected with the hepatitis C virus, and most of them don't know it.

Often, patients live for years or decades with few or no symptoms while the virus destroys the liver. A new treatment has just been approved by the FDA that's helping more and more patients rid the body of the virus for good.

Rhonda Gilbert loves to cook for hours, but until just a few months ago, she couldn't stand for more than a few minutes.

"I would walk down the block, and I would get so exhausted, I would have to sit down," Rhonda Gilbert, who has hepatitis C, told Ivanhoe

For more than a decade, Gilbert lived with persistent fatigue. It's one of the most common symptoms for people infected with the hepatitis C virus. Hepatitis C enters the bloodstream and attacks the liver. It can be introduced into the body during intravenous drug use, or before 1990, during a blood transfusion. Rhonda Gilbert needed a transfusion in 1972 after a tonsillectomy. Her doctors believe the virus has been attacking her body since then.

Doctors say until now, the standard treatment for hepatitis C has been a weekly injection of Interferon and a pill taken twice daily called Ribavirin. This treatment works in about half the patients. Doctor Stuart Gordon is an expert in liver disease. He's been tracking the results when a third drug is added to the mix. Boceprevir is a protease inhibitor, meaning it works by blocking the virus's ability to replicate.

"We've looked in liver tissue and blood cells and followed up with these patients years later. The virus is still gone. That's as close to a cure as you're going to get," Stuart Gordon, M.D., a director of hepatology at Henry Ford Health System, said.

Rhonda Gilbert was treated with the three-drug cocktail in 2009. The virus is now gone, and Gilbert's energy is back for the first time in almost 20 years. Doctor Gordon says the drug cocktail using protease inhibitor Boceprevir worked for almost 70 percent of the patients in the trial.

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