Dallas, TX – The Center for Disease Control estimates that more than three million Americans are chronically infected with hepatitis C. In Dallas, University Of Texas Southwestern's Dr. William Lee first started seeing patients more than twenty years ago, when the cure rate was just five percent. Now his patients are seeing a cure rate of close to 70 percent thanks to two new drugs that received FDA approval this summer. KERA's Sujata Dand has more on this groundbreaking research.
Shawn, patient: This is a never-ending thing.
Sixty-one year old Shawn tosses the last of the clothes in the washer. In a rare moment of quiet, she settles on her couch in her suburban Dallas home and begins to open up about having hepatitis C, something most of her friends and family don't know about.
Shawn: A lot of shame involved in that. Lot of guilt.
That's why she asked us not to use her last name.
Shawn: I graduated from high school in 1968, and did some IV drug use, very minimal, just a few times all that stuff because I'm afraid of needles. I'm sure that's where I got it.
Shawn's bookcase is filled with family pictures tracing the last 40 years of her life. For most of that time, she didn't know she had the virus.
She found out during a routine physical a few years ago. Her doctor told her that hepatitis C can lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer, making the virus the leading cause for liver transplants in the United States. About 12,000 Americans infected with the virus die every year from liver disease.
Shawn: Was really frightened because I really didn't understand what it was. I thought it meant I could be dying pretty soon, within a few years.
But all of that changed, when a year after being diagnosed, Shawn participated in an experimental drug trial at UT Southwestern's Clinical Center for Liver Disease.
Dr. William Lee runs the biggest clinical trial center in Texas for hepatitis studies.
Dr. William Lee, UT Southwestern Liver Specialist: We take care of all the blood draws, spinning the samples. You have to have the data and the data comes from the blood tests.
In his trademark bow tie, Dr. Lee's modest manner disguises his stature as a world-renowned liver disease specialist. More than 20 years of his work testing the efficacy of different drugs has put Southwestern on the frontlines of fighting viral hepatitis.
Lee: This really is a breakthrough, and patients are clamoring to get these new medications.
Until recently, the standard one-year regimen to treat hepatitis C included a once a week inteferon shot and twice a day ribaviran pills. For more than half of the patients, the drugs didn't work. But, after years of research costing more than half a billion dollars, scientists at pharmaceutical giant Merck and biotech company Vertex developed two new drugs, Victrelis and Incivek. The medications are protease inhibitors, which means they block enzymes that the virus needs to replicate. They still have to be used with the traditional course of therapy, but the length of treatment is about half as long.
Lee: The new medications are much better. They get the viral load down within four weeks. It's almost doubling the success rate, its going from about 40 percent to about 65 or 70.
And Shawn's experience was just that. After a few weeks of treatment, she was virus free.
Lee: It is exciting. If they get a good response, we can tell because we are able to check viral loads in real time. So, we know the week of the blood test that their virus is now undetectable. And, again, that signifies that the drugs are working. And, then it's usually a matter of just keeping on the medication for the rest of the time period and handling what side effects come along.
And, this new treatment does have side effects. Shawn lost about half of her hair, had severe anemia, and suffered from depression.
Shawn: I just kept thinking I can do this. This is really not bad because the chance of being completely cured was so great. You just hung in there.
Three years after treatment, the virus has still not returned. Shawn is considered cured.
Shawn: I feel like I got my life back, I really do. I have more stamina and endurance and my health is great. So, it was really good.
The drugs were approved in May by the FDA. The cost is around 70 thousand dollars, and insurance covers almost half. Meanwhile, Dr. Lee is testing the next generation of hepatitis C drugs in an effort to shorten treatment and limit side effects.