Richmond, VA - Nearly 4 million people in the U.S. are living with a potentially fatal virus in their bodies, but only a fraction know it. Hepatitis C, the Hidden Killer, can lie dormant in your liver, causing slow and silent destruction for decades.
Now, a new round of drugs is bringing new hope to doctors and their patients. Until recently, treatments for Hepatitis C have been almost as painful as the virus itself. Doctors have been working furiously over the past several years to develop a new generation of drugs to cure patients in less time, with less effort, and with less pain.
"The new drugs that we're using, almost everybody is cured. In fact, now it's rare for somebody in these clinical trials not to be cured," said Dr. Mitchell Shiffman, Medical Director of the Bon Secours Liver Institute in Richmond.
The new treatments are a far cry from ones dating back just three years ago. Before 2011, the year-long process of treating Hepatitis C produced limited results and extensive side effects.
"Because of these low cure rates and the high side effect rates, this is why the vast majority of patients with Hepatitis C in the country, who know they have the virus, have not been treated," said Shiffman.
Only 25% of Americans with Hepatitis C know they have it. Less than half of those people are seeking treatment. The risks and benefits of older treatments just don't weigh out for most patients.
"It's depressing to take those medications and get side effects and not be cured," said Shiffman.
The main culprit of these side effects is interferon, an injection that's been known to cause depression, flu-like symptoms and fatigue. Bryan McKernon is all too familiar with the side effects interferon causes. The 57-year-old learned he had Hepatitis when he was 30. Back then, Hep C wasn't even on the radar for most doctors.
So, McKernon went to the Bon Secours Liver Institute in Richmond, to meet with Dr. Shiffman.
"When we first met Bryan he looked very healthy, but his liver was already very diseased," said Shiffman.
At Bon Secours, McKernon participated in several clinical trials that kept his Hepatitis C at bay, but never cured it. After several failed treatments, Dr. Shiffman put McKernon on a combination of two drugs: Ribavirin and Interferon.
"Went in and it just, I just crashed. It was just too much for me. My system couldn't handle it," said McKernon.
"At that point, his disease had progressed a little bit more. He got very sick from it. His liver couldn't tolerate it," said Shiffman.
"I collapsed and went into a coma for probably close to 15 days, 14 days. Then the next thing I know I was heading down to get a liver transplant," McKernon.
After McKernon's transplant, his Hepatitis C came back with a vengeance.
"Not many patients are cured of Hepatitis C after transplants, so those patients that get it back in a more severe way and progress, there's not a lot of options for those individuals," said Shiffman.
Desperate for a cure, Dr. Shiffman enrolled his patient in a special clinical trial of a new wonder-drug called Sofosbuvir.
"No side effects. Couldn't even tell you had taken it. Just felt unbelievable within a short period of time. It was just all the problems you were having seemed to clear up pretty fast. And each month continued to get better," said McKernon.
"Within a month, his Hepatitis C virus was undetectable. His liver function immediately started to improve," said Shiffman.
Approved by the FDA in December of 2013, Sofosbuvir can be taken with or without Interferon, over a 12 week period, versus 12 months.
"Virtually over 90% of individuals who take Sofosbuvir are virus negative within two weeks and 99% are virus negative within four weeks," said Shiffman.
With a more than 90% cure rate, Sofosbuvir is making current treatments obsolete, and could make Hepatitis C a thing of the past.
"Good feeling. Good feeling. Feel like a 29-year-old. Don't look like one, but feel like one, haha," said McKernon.
As promising as this new drug is, it does have one drawback: the price. A full course of treatment of Sofosbuvir costs about $84,000. That's about a thousand dollars a pill.
Dr. Shiffman say some insurance carriers have been willing to pay, but it's been a difficult process. However over the next year or so another round of drugs, said to be even better, will be hitting the market. Doctors hope then, these ground-breaking treatments will be widely available to all Hepatitis C patients.
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