A new drug that prevents a contagious virus from duplicating in the body could be a potent new weapon against hepatitis C, a disease that could kill more people than AIDS, scientists said on Sunday. More than 170 million people around the globe are infected with the hepatitis C virus, which can cause permanent liver damage and in many cases death. There is no vaccine against the virus and current treatments can cause serious side effects. But scientists working for German pharmaceutical giant Boehringer Ingelheim have developed a drug that could offer new hope to patients with the illness. Called BILN 2061, the drug targets an enzyme to block the replication of the virus. The HCV viral loads of eight people given four doses of the treatment dropped by 100- to 1,000-fold after 48 hours without producing any unpleasant reactions in the patients, the researchers report. Hepatitis C is currently treated using interferons, including Pegasys, produced by Roche, and PeginTron, made by Schering-Plough. Both treatments are given in combination with the antiviral drug ribavirin.
BILN 2061 is the first of a class of drugs called NS3 protease inhibitors to be tested in humans. Although longer trials are needed to see if the drug keeps the viral load down and if resistance develops, the scientists believe it "holds great promise to markedly improve treatments of chronic HCV infection." HCV is commonly transferred by contact with the blood of someone infected with the virus, but it is also believed to be transmitted through unprotected sex. Hepatitis is a serious problem for gay men, with more than half of HIV-positive gay men also coinfected with HCV. Hepatitis C is one of the leading causes of death in all HIV-positive people.