By Justin Gillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 10, 2006
Shares of two biotechnology companies jumped yesterday after they reported some of the best results ever seen in treatment of a serious liver virus, the latest indication that a cure for hepatitis C could be at hand in a few years -- just in time to rescue millions of baby boomers with the ailment.
Shares of Idenix Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., jumped 18 percent after the company reported study results for its hepatitis C treatment that were strong enough to surprise many investors. Shares of Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc., also of Cambridge, rose a more modest 6 percent after the company reported striking results in one of its studies. Many investors had been expecting strong data from Vertex based on prior studies, and they have bid the company's stock up 216 percent in the past year.
Vertex, developing what many experts perceive to be the most potent of the new hepatitis medicines, said yesterday that when the pill was combined in a small, early-stage study with an existing treatment, the drug cut the amount of hepatitis C virus in patients' bodies to a minuscule fraction of its prior level in just two weeks of treatment. In past studies, dramatic drops in the amount of virus have been a prelude to cures in many patients, but it has often taken months if it happened at all.
"No one's ever seen anything like this," said Joshua S. Boger, chief executive of Vertex. Donald M. Jensen, a University of Chicago liver doctor and board member of the American Liver Foundation, called the data "truly exciting."
Many Americans think of hepatitis as a serious but short-term ailment they get from eating tainted food in foreign countries. That's hepatitis A. Hepatitis B and C are slower but far nastier, damaging people's livers over the course of decades until they lead to life-threatening problems such as cancer and liver failure. At least 2.7 million Americans -- nearly 1 percent of the population -- are chronically infected with hepatitis C, making it the largest blood-borne infection in the country and a looming health crisis as many of those people progress toward serious disease.
Using two anti-viral medicines that were not specifically designed to attack hepatitis C, doctors reached the point several years ago where they could eliminate the virus in roughly half of patients. But the treatment is arduous, requiring up to a year of pills and injections that can cause flu-like symptoms and other side effects. More importantly, the treatment does not work for a majority of people who have the most common strain of hepatitis C virus.
Speaking this week at an investor conference in California, several companies are laying out research plans that they believe will transform the field of hepatitis treatment over the next several years. At least a half-dozen companies appear to be closing in on new, potent treatments that were specifically designed to attack the hepatitis C virus.
"Just over a year ago, the hepatitis C area was one of frustration and negative news," said Colin Broom, chief scientific officer of ViroPharma Inc. of Exton, Pa., which is working on one promising treatment. "Since then, the whole area has been transformed."
ViroPharma reported no new data for its drug yesterday, but the company's shares still jumped 11 percent, apparently driven higher by investor focus on the whole category of hepatitis treatments.
The furthest-along of the new treatments is one under development by Schering-Plough Corp. of Kenilworth, N.J., which had been a leader in earlier treatments for hepatitis C. The big company -- whose shares rose 1 percent yesterday -- has launched advanced human studies of its drug, though the product may still be several years from final approval by the Food and Drug Administration.
Most of the other drugs are in early human tests, and it is far too soon to predict which might win approval. Drugs often fail in large, late-stage tests because of side effects. That happened several years ago with a hepatitis C treatment that looked promising. But liver experts believe at least some of the new drugs will win approval eventually, giving doctors treatment combinations that will cure hepatitis C in a large majority of patients.
"I think you're seeing a major advance in this field," said Eugene R. Schiff, director of the Center for Liver Diseases at the University of Miami and one of the country's leading experts on hepatitis. "Things are moving rapidly, and I would certainly encourage anyone with hepatitis C to get evaluated."
Companies are modeling their research on the previous success that drug companies had in treating AIDS. Once companies developed multiple drugs that could target the human immunodeficiency virus at different steps in its reproductive cycle, doctors achieved dramatic success in restoring patients' health. In hepatitis C, company scientists are exploiting some of the same drug-design strategies that worked against HIV.
The biggest difference is that HIV infection is permanent, and most people must take drug treatment for life to combat it. But a growing body of evidence suggests that hepatitis C can be eradicated from the body.
"This is a cure that we're working on," Broom said.