Experimental treatment cures Ottawa wrestler of hepatitis C

A former professional wrestler from Ottawa says an experimental treatment has cured him of hepatitis C and he’s now set his sights on the Olympics.

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A former professional wrestler from Ottawa says an experimental treatment has cured him of hepatitis C and he’s now set his sights on the Olympics.

Devon Nicholson claims that he contracted the disease during a 2007 match with Lawrence Robert Shreve, the World Wrestling Entertainment hall-of-famer who wrestles under the name Abdullah the Butcher.  His claims have not been proven in court.

After losing a freshly-signed contract with the WWE after his diagnosis, Nicholson said he underwent the standard treatment for Hepatitis C — an injectable drug called interferon and a general antiviral compound called ribavirin — from September of 2009 to January of 2012, when he stopped because of the side effects.

Ottawa's Devon Nicholson said a meeting with a former WWE champion helped make the connections that ended up curing him of hepatitis C. (CBC)

He said he was calling drug companies looking for experimental treatments when he met up with former WWE champion Billy Graham, who had just had a liver transplant because of hepatitis C and was urging Nicholson to get help before the same happened to him.

“What happened in 2012 is Graham got me in touch with his old doctor at the Mayo Clinic who did his liver transplant, Dr. Hector Rodriguez-Luna,” Nicholson said.

“(He) talked to me and (said) this new experimental treatment might work for me.”

Side effects severe

That treatment involved a still-new type of drug, telaprovir, which had been used for the most common type of hepatitis C, known as genotype 1.

Nicholson, who was suffering from the less-common genotype 2 version, said he was depressed and bordering on suicidal at the time so the side effects of trying it on his kind of hepatitis C didn’t scare him.

“I just wanted it out and I was willing to try anything,” he said.

Nicholson approached the Civic Campus of The Ottawa Hospital and asked them to administer the treatment on him.

He said side effects included insomnia, weight loss (he lost 45 pounds) and itching, one time so severe he had to go to the emergency room.

However, after a treatment period of 36 weeks during which he said he took an “insane” amount of pills, doctors said he was cured in mid-December.

Dr. Mark Tyndall says there has been a recent "explosion" of new hepatitis C drugs, with two new ones approved by the United States' FAA in recent months. (CBC)

Nicholson said he thinks he could be the first patient in Canada to be cured of his type of hepatitis C using this treatment, which had only been available to genotype 1 patients for a year or two.

”If you care at all about your life, you’d be willing to go through any side effect because you will eventually die from hepatitis C, it’s a matter of time… you have no choice but to be cleared of the disease,” he said.

'Explosion' of new hepatitis C drugs

Dr. Mark Tyndall is the head of infectious diseases division at the Ottawa Hospital and University of Ottawa.

Dr. Tyndall said telaprovir works well in combination with other drugs because it’s a molecule that’s specifically designed to combat hepatitis C, bringing higher cure rates along with a shorter treatment time.

He said there’s been a recent “explosion” of new hepatitis C treatment drugs.

“The whole face of how we treat hepatitis C in the next two or three years will be much different than what we see now, to the point where people who may qualify or need treatment right now are being told to wait and see,” he said.

Dr. Tyndall said one barrier to these new drugs is the cost, as much as $80,000 for a full treatment of a recently-approved drug in the United States on top of the $20,000 to $25,000 the old, so-called “standard” treatment costs.

“It’s a game changer, but I think the financial question will be the big hurdle, I think the drug that he was on plus a lot of the new ones coming up are very effective, way better tolerated, you need to take them for a shorter course… but they’re super expensive,” he said.

“The government will have to be making some fairly difficult decisions about how widely it allows this drug to be used, if it’s paying for it.”

Dr. Tyndall said around 250,000 Canadians are living with hepatitis C, with as much as a quarter of them not knowing they have it because symptoms haven’t set in.

Statistics Canada said the number of Canadians who don't know they have hepatitis C could be even higher.

Sights set on Rio

For Nicholson, he said he’s still proceeding with a $6.5 million lawsuit against Shreve, who he alleges cut himself and then Nicholson with a razor blade in the ring.

“It’s not common, in a professional wrestling match, to be cut with a razor blade that has somebody else’s blood on it,” he said.

That lawsuit is scheduled to begin the week of March 31.

In the meantime, Nicholson said he’s been cleared to resume amateur wrestling with the goal of qualifying for the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“I want to show people that you can’t let a little obstacle like this, or a big obstacle, stop you — you’ve got to move forward,” he said.