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MedUni Vienna researches interferon-free treatment for hepatitis C

(Vienna 28th February 2013) Between 40,000 and 80,000 Austrians suffer from hepatitis C. It is a disease that can lead to cirrhosis of the liver and even to inoperable liver cancer. The MedUni Vienna’s Department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology is currently involved in international clinical studies that are driving forward the development of interferon-free treatments for this type of viral hepatitis. “The aim is to develop a treatment that is more effective and has fewer side effects,” says hepatologist Harald Hofer.

The number of undiagnosed cases of hepatitis C in Austria is extremely high. This is because the condition has no clear symptoms. Says Hofer: “The most common symptom is unfortunately non-specific, namely fatigue.” In most cases, hepatitis C – an inflammatory condition of the liver caused by an infection by the hepatitis C virus – is diagnosed by chance based on deranged liver function tests. Jaundice can be - but not always - associated with the infection.  

The standard therapy for this condition is a combination therapy with interferon alpha, which has an immune-stimulating, anti-viral effect. Interferon is used in hepatitis C for a period of up to twelve months, and is injected once a week. Adverse side effects include flu-like symptoms such as joint pain, fever or headache, but also depression, thyroid dysfunction or hair loss.

“With new infections, prompt therapy is tremendously important because it can prevent the condition from transitioning into a chronic disease,” stresses Hofer. Even when the disease has become chronic, the virus can be cured permanently with treatment. “99 per cent of patients who are virus-free after a six-month follow-up phase remain that way. The late relapse rate is extremely low. But successful treatment most importantly means a lower likelihood of developing liver cancer, as well as a survival advantage for patients, as recent research results have shown,” says Hofer.

Each year, the Gastroenterology and Hepatology Clinic at the MedUni Vienna’s University Department of Internal Medicine III treats several hundred patients, some of them in the context of clinical studies. Under the leadership of Peter Ferenci, the MedUni Vienna has established a highly respected study centre. Through ongoing clinical studies, research is being carried out on interferon-free combination therapies known as DAA therapies (“Direct Acting Antiviral Therapy”). According to Hofer, the advantages are that “these therapies would be targeted directly at the hepatitis C virus.” The vision is, says the hepatologist, to have interferon-free therapy available for clinical use in the near future.

Hepatitis C is transmitted via blood, for example through tattoos, injected drug abuse, stored blood, etc. The infection can remain dormant for many years. Transmission through everyday activities is virtually impossible.

The MedUni Vienna’s five research clusters

Hepatitis research falls under the Allergology/Immunology/Infectious Diseases research cluster at the MedUni Vienna. The MedUni Vienna is increasingly focusing in this, and the other four specialist domains, on fundamental and clinical research. The other four research clusters are Cancer Research / Oncology, Vascular / Cardiac Medicine, Neurosciences and Imaging.