WebMD Medical News
Louise Chang, MD
July 11, 2007 -- Shortening treatment to less than six months does not
appear to be a good strategy for patients with the most curable types of
hepatitis C virus infection, new research suggests.
Patients with hepatitis C genotypes 2 and 3 who were treated for four months
had lower cure rates and higher relapse rates than those treated for six
The study, which appears in tomorrow’s New England Journal of
Medicine, shows that longer treatment benefits even those with highly
treatable hepatitis C, researcher Mitchell L. Shiffman, MD, tells WebMD.
“I tell patients if they can tolerate treatment and can stay on it for 24
weeks, they have a better chance of achieving the best possible outcome, which
is a cure,” he says.
Long-term infection with hepatitis C virus (HCV) is a leading cause of
cirrhosis, liver cancer, and livertransplants in the United States. As many as
4 million Americans are infected, but most don’t know it, experts say.
About 70% of infected Americans carry the genotype 1 form of hepatitis C,
which tends to be less responsive to treatment than genotypes 2 and 3.
With aggressive treatment, nearly 80% of people with genotypes 2 or 3
achieve complete and sustained viral eradication, or cures, compared with about
40% to 45% of people carrying genotype 1 virus.
These days, most patients are treated with a long-acting version of the
injected drug interferon along with the antiviral drug ribavirin.
The standard course of treatment for patients with the more treatable types
of hepatitis C infection is half that of patients with genotype 1 hepatitis C
-- 24 weeks compared with 48 weeks.
In several recent studies, it was reported that shortening treatment to four
months and even three months had no impact on cure rates in hepatitis C
genotype 2 or 3 patients.
In an effort to test these findings, Shiffman and colleagues from Virginia
Commonwealth University compared outcomes among genotype 2 or 3 patients
treated for four months and six months.
They report that 31% of patients treated with the shorter course of therapy
eventually relapsed, compared with 18% of patients who got the full six months
of treatment. Relapse was defined as having detectable levels of virus in the
blood at follow-up despite complete viral eradication at the end of
Overall, 62% of patients treated for four months achieved sustained viral
responses, compared with 70% of patients treated for six months.
Among patients who achieved complete viral responses within a month of
starting treatment, 79% of those treated for four months achieved complete,
sustained responses, compared to 85% of the patients treated for six
Shiffman understands the desire of patients and doctors to shorten
treatment. The drugs used to treat hepatitis C are very expensive and they can
cause severe fatigue, fever, depression, and other hard-to-tolerate side
But he says a better strategy than shortening treatment is lowering drug
dosage in patients who have trouble tolerating hepatitis C treatments.
He adds that rapid response to treatment has become as important as viral
genotype for predicting response to treatment.
Patients who show no signs of hepatitis C infection within a month of
beginning treatment have a 90% cure rate, regardless of genotype, he says.
“We are learning that the optimal way to treat hepatitis C is to monitor the
virus during treatment, no matter what the genotype, and adjust treatment
duration based on response.”
T. Jake Liang, MD, of the National Institutes of Health, says this
individualized approach to hepatitis C treatment will become more common as
more is learned about the virus.
Liang is chief of the liver disease branch of the National Institute of
Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
“As our technology improves we will be more able to identify patients who
will benefit from a shorter course of treatment,” he tells WebMD. “For now,
though, genotype 2 and 3 patients who can tolerate the treatment should remain
on it for a full six months.”
SOURCES: Shiffman, M.L. New England Journal of Medicine, July 12,
2007; vol 357: pp 124-134. Mitchell L. Shiffman, MD, professor, Virginia
Commonwealth University; chief of hepatology, Virginia Commonwealth University
Medical Center, Richmond, VA. T. Jake Liang, MD, chief of the liver diseases
branch, NIDDK, Bethesda, Md. Journal of the American Medical
Association, July 9, 2003.
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