An experimental hepatitis C drug from Gilead Sciences Inc. cleared the disease in 88% of patients, the company announced today. It is great news for sufferers of the disease, which wreaks havoc on the liver, slowly causing cirrhosis and liver failure. Other problems can include liver cancer, and life threatening esophageal and gastric varicose.

Although primarily spread by blood to blood contact, and associated with intravenous drug use, poorly sterilized equipment and blood transfusions, the disease is wide spread with up towards 200 million people estimated to be suffering.

Well known examples of sufferers include Dame Anita Roddick, the owner of Body Shop, who believes she contracted the disease after a blood transfusion was administered during the birth of her first daughter. She became a patron of The Hepatitis C Trust, the only UK charity devoted to the virus. Another celebrity, Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer from the group Red Hot Chili Peppers, a long term heroin and cocaine addict, discusses his battle with the disease in his book Scar Tissue, claiming he eventually beat the disease with frequent Ozonated blood transfusions.

Gilead Sciences’ remedy seems a great deal simpler with a 12 week course of the antiviral drug ribavirin, combined with their yet unnamed 7977 formula. In trials, the treatment cleared 22 out of 25 patients. The patients took no other medication during the 12 weeks and were still clear of the disease four weeks after treatment ended.

Gilead spent some $10 Billion dollars to acquire Pharmasset Inc., who discovered the 7977 formula, but initial tests were not encouraging, with most patients relapsing when they stopped taking the treatment. In February of this year, the company’s shares tumbled when they announced this news.

Gilead is not alone in searching for a cure for Hepatitis C. Others include Abbott Laboratories, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Merck & Co. and Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc., who are all working on possible hepatitis cures while trying to avoid the use of interferon, an injection with harsh flu-like side effects. 7977 blocks an enzyme essential to the replication of the hepatitis C virus. It is one of a new class of treatments designed to be given without interferon.

Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc’s new hepatitis C drug, Incivek and Merck & Co’s Victrelis, both won U.S. approval last year, but it is not likely that 7977 will be approved for general use before the end of 2013, as more wide ranging trials are needed. Once on the market, it will be a valuable product for Gilead, with some $3 Billion per annum of additional revenue for the company if all goes well.

Kris Kowdley, MD, Director of the Liver Center of Excellence at the Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle and the study’s principal investigator confirmed that :

“These data suggest that this GS-7977-based regimen could offer most patients with genotype 1 a simple, short, three-month course of treatment with very high cure rates … An all-oral regimen for HCV remains the ultimate treatment goal. In the interim, these results suggest that we may soon be able to end the complex process of response-guided HCV therapy and shorten the duration of treatment, which would be a significant advance for patients and for physicians who manage their care.”

Gilead’s findings will be presented today during an oral session, at the 47th Annual Meeting of the European Association for the Study of the Liver (International Liver Congress 2012), in Barcelona, Spain.

Written by Rupert Shepherd