In the past, the standard treatments for hepatitis C have been nearly as bad as the disease, making some patients feel like they have a severe flu. And, even with treatment, hepatitis C often doesn’t get better. But things could be changing for the over three million people infected in the United States. A new class of improved hepatitis C drugs is emerging, and they're being tested in Kansas City.
“When you get a call that says you’ve got hepatitis, it’s a wakeup call,” says 57-year old Bob Barber.
Barber got that call about five years ago. The hepatitis C virus can stay in the body for years without making you sick, and most people don’t know when they have it. But once you are sick, serious problems, especially for the liver, can result. So right away, Barber started treatment with a standard combination of hepatitis C drugs.
“Instead of improving, mine actually got worse,” explains Barber.
He says the drugs left him bed-ridden with severe aches and mood problems, and after three months, his doctor decided to stop treatment.
“When they saw my levels went up instead of down,” says Barber, “then it wasn’t a good idea to continue.”
Drug side effects and ineffective treatments are just the start of problems for people with hepatitis C. There’s a stigma surrounding the virus that prevents a lot of patients from getting treatment or even talking about it. That’s because it’s often spread by drug needles, sexual contact and unhygienic tattooing, among other routes.
“As a single man, it’s a little rough to meet a lady and say ‘Hi, my name’s Bill. I’ve had hepatitis C. Would you like to go out with me?’” says Barber.
Toward A New Treatment
For the past 23 years, Dr. Bradley Freilich has been working to overcome a lot of the difficulties faced by patients like Barber.
“This has been a slow-moving increased progression of success and treatment of Hepatitis C,” says Dr. Bradley Freilich of the Kansas City Research Institute.
Recently, Freilich has been testing a new kind of drug called direct-acting antivirals.
“For the first time, we’re able to see cure rates in excess of 90 percent with side effects that are far less and with a much short period of treatment,” Freilich says.
One of the drugs Freilich has been testing, Sovaldi, was approved by the FDA on Dec. 6, and it’s already being produced by drug maker Gilead Science. A similar drug called Olysio was approved a couple of weeks ago, and more of this type are coming soon.
Like the old treatments, the new regimen could be complicated to administer in some cases, requiring both pills and injections.
The High Cost Of Treatment
Sue Simon of the hepatitis C association describes the arrival of Sovaldi as “wonderful news,” but she says the new treatment doesn’t come cheap.
“Eighty thousand dollars for twelve weeks,” Simon explains.
Sovaldi costs $1000 dollars a day. And it requires from 12 to 24 weeks of use. Which means treating a chronic infection could cost nearly $180,000.
“I think the cost is very high,” says Simon. “We certainly were hoping that it wouldn’t be that high.”
High treatment costs are nothing new for hepatitis C patients. According to Simon, the old standard treatment – that one that made you feel sick and didn’t always work – costs $35,000. Insurance often leaves a lot of that cost for patients.
Overcoming Hepatitis C
Regardless of the expense, patients like Bill Barber are thrilled about Sovaldi. After he went off the old treatment, Barber enrolled in a clinical trial for the drug run by Freilich. In May of this year, he was declared cured of hepatitis C thanks to the Freilich and his team.
“They saved my life. I was in that bad a shape,” says Barber.
Freilich’s work isn’t done yet. He’s been testing another drug that could make things even easier for hepatitis C patients by further reducing the need for injections. That may be approved by the FDA within the next few months.