RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And any day now the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve the first in a new class of drugs that can cure the leading cause of liver failure and liver cancer. That would be hepatitis C. More than three million people have it. Most of them don't know that. Health officials are urging everyone born between 1945 and 1965 to get tested for hepatitis C, that's around 79 million people.
NPR's Richard Knox reports on the potential impact of the new hepatitis drugs.
RICHARD KNOX, BYLINE: The promise is plain from recent studies of thousands of patients.
HENRY ALAMEDA: I'm Henry Alameda and I used to have hepatitis C.
KNOX: Alameda is a 54-year-old carpenter from San Antonio. He says he got the hepatitis C virus from a contaminated needle used by an amateur tattoo artist.
ALAMEDA: The person that he had done right before me, it turned out that he had hepatitis C. That's pretty much how I found out how I had gotten the hepatitis.
KNOX: That was about 20 years ago. Over the past eight years, Alameda has undergone two grueling rounds of treatment with older drugs, including injections of a drug called interferon. It caused severe side effects lasting six months.
ALAMEDA: It's like waking up with a bad cold. You would have to get under the blanket and you start shaking. You would get real bad chills.
KNOX: And the older treatments didn't clear the hepatitis virus from his blood. Then he got an experimental medication called sofosbuvir, in combination with a drug called Ribavirin.
ALAMEDA: It was like a miracle pill. It was just like taking an aspirin. I had no side effects at all.
KNOX: And it worked. Fifteen months after he finished taking the pills, there's no trace of the virus in his blood. Doctors have pronounced him cured.
ALAMEDA: It's great. Definitely I have a different outlook on things. I can wake up in the morning, it's a brighter day.
KNOX: Dr. Eric Lawitz, of the Texas Liver Institute, ran the study that Henry Alameda volunteered for.
DR. ERIC LAWITZ: If you would have told me two or three years ago that we would have been treating patients with combinations of pills for 12 weeks, and getting over 90 percent cure rates, I would have been very suspicious and very doubtful.
KNOX: Sofosbuvir is just the first of promising new drugs for hepatitis C. More are expected in the next year or so. Lawitz says the safety and effectiveness of these drugs will open the door for treatment of a rapidly growing number of people with the liver infection.
LAWITZ: I mean really, there's not going to be that many reasons not to treat patients. If you have a set of safe, simple, short-duration pills that cure hepatitis C, who's not going to want treatment?
KNOX: To understand the potential impact, consider this: Hepatitis C infects up to five times as many people as HIV, the AIDS virus.
DAVID THOMAS: This is about as hot as I've ever seen. I've never seen anything like it.
KNOX: That's hepatitis expert David Thomas of Johns Hopkins Medical School. He says the new drugs are almost like curing lung cancer with three months of once-a-day pills.
THOMAS: That's kind of an exaggeration, because lung cancer treatment is worse than what we used to do. But it's that kind of thing, where we did something that didn't work that much and it hurt people a lot. And then we go from that to something that's...
THOMAS: ...it's really an amazing transformation.
KNOX: Thomas says the new drugs are coming at just the right time. Many baby boomers got infected decades ago by experimenting with drug use, from blood transfusions or medical treatments, from things like tattoos and piercings. It was a time when the risk of hepatitis wasn't appreciated. And now they're beginning to show liver damage.
THOMAS: And then right at that time having medications that are safe and efficacious, that's just perfect timing.
KNOX: These drugs won't come cheap. Sofosbuvir is expected to cost around $90,000 for a course of treatment. But Thomas says society should consider the cost of not treating.
THOMAS: If we fail to provide treatment to an expanding population of persons that are at risk of cirrhosis and liver cancer, then we'll have even greater costs and they won't all be economic.
KNOX: He says it would lead to a soaring rate of liver cancer and more than double the number of people who need liver transplants.
Richard Knox, NPR News.
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