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Ravell Call, Deseret News
Dr. Michael Charlton speaks in Murray on Friday, Dec. 11, 2015, as Intermountain Medical Center unveils results of a major national study that provides new hope for millions of people with hepatitis C.

MURRAY — Researchers at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray have a new cure for hepatitis C that they say is effective even for patients with advanced liver disease.

The treatment — consisting of one or two pills a day for 12 weeks — has an overall cure rate of 90 percent, researchers announced Friday.

"We're very excited for our patients," said Dr. Michael Charlton, the medical director of the liver transplantation program at IMC and a principal investigator of the study.

"It's an emotional thing when a patient has been struggling with hepatitis C, sometimes for decades, and they find they're cured of it," he added.

The new treatment eradicates the hepatitis C virus from the body and can even restore liver function in some patients. The virus, as far as researchers can tell, does not recur — a "true cure" in the words of Robin Kim, the executive medical director of the transplant program at the University of Utah.

Up until five years ago, hepatitis C was considered to have no cure. For many patients, “the prospect of being told that they can have their hepatitis C virus cured is something they’ve never heard of," Kim said.

The blood-borne illness, most commonly spread through dirty needles, shows no symptoms at first. But for many patients, the virus eventually begins to attack the liver, causing liver disease, scarring, cancer and sometimes death.

For years, the only known treatment for it was a series of injectables that caused severe flu-like side effects and, eventually, a liver transplant.

“Just a few years ago, we were looking at a year of therapy with these injectable drugs, your hair falls out, you feel terrible, we had a cure rate of 25 percent,” Charlton said. “It was bad.”

In recent years, several breakthrough hepatitis C drugs have hit the market. They are effective — and expensive.

Gilead Sciences, the company that sponsored the study, has made headlines for the budget-busting prices of its other hepatitis C medicines. The drug Sovaldi debuted at a price of $1,000 a pill — or about $84,000 for a full course of treatment.

Gilead's other hepatitis C drug, Harvoni, costs even more — about $95,000 for a full course of treatment.

Insurers and state Medicaid programs across the U.S. have blamed the high-priced "specialty drugs" for straining their budgets.

The drugs studied by Charlton are a new class of medicines that use a different mechanism to treat hepatitis C than Sovaldi or Harvoni, he said. They're more effective for certain strains of the virus and work even for patients on the cusp of needing liver transplants.

Though the drugs won't hit the market until mid-2016 at the earliest — pending FDA approval — Charlton has already seen the effects among his patients in clinical trials.

"We haven't lost a single patient in the 2 ½ years I've been here in the form of recurrence of hepatitis C, and the reason is these medications,” Charlton said.

Charlton expects Gilead will price these new drugs at about the same price as their other hepatitis C treatments.

The high cost of these drugs was a "huge issue," he admitted. But he pointed out that these treatments are still far less expensive than a liver transplant, which costs between $500,000 and $700,000.

Hepatitis C-related complications are the leading cause of liver transplantation in the U.S.

Meanwhile, recurrence of the virus is the most common cause of death among transplant recipients.

Charlton added that a number of other hepatitis C drugs are being developed that build on the advances that led to Sovaldi.

“The gravitational pull of market competition applies in medicine,” Charlton said. “Chevy can’t say, ‘We’re going to charge $100,000 for the Volt because they’re going to have to compete with Tesla and other companies making electric vehicles.’ It’s the same with these new medicines.”

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