Hepatitis C drug tested in chimps

Scientists in the U.S. and Denmark have found that an experimental drug to treat hepatitis C works in chimpanzees.

An experimental drug to treat hepatitis C has worked in chimpanzees, a study in the journal Science Express reports.

Unlike other antiviral drugs that attack the virus, the experimental drug targets a small RNA molecule in the liver that hepatitis C needs to replicate, researchers reported in this week's online issue of the journal Science Express.

The drug, called SPC3649, was developed by the biopharmaceutical firm Santaris Pharma A/S in Denmark.

The treatment is already undergoing "human clinical trials and is currently undergoing Phase 1 clinical studies in healthy volunteers," said one of the study's authors, Robert Lanford of the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, Texas, in a news release.

Lanford worked with researchers from Santaris and the Copenhagen Institute of Technology on the study.

They concluded that the technology could also work against other diseases, such as HIV, cancer and inflammatory diseases.

In the study, researchers tested the drug on four chimpanzees chronically infected with hepatitis C.

The two animals that received a higher dose showed a 350-fold drop in viral levels in their blood and liver, the team reported.

Hepatitis C is transmitted by blood and causes inflammation of the liver. In some cases, it can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.

Treatment for chronic hepatitis C can involve 48 weeks of interferon and the antiviral drug ribavirin. The potential side-effects of treatment can be severe.

The safety and effectiveness of SPC3649 in humans still has to be tested.

If those trials are successful, the researchers said the experimental drug could be used in the future to replace interferon in some treatments or in combination with interferon and ribavirin for other diseases. 

The hepatitis C virus is spread through contact with infected blood, such as sharing poorly sterilized needles or other contaminated equipment.

In August, researchers reported that a slight genetic variation may explain why some people are less likely to respond to standard treatment for hepatitis C infection.

An estimated 242,500 Canadians and an estimated 170 million people worldwide are infected with hepatitis C, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada and the World Health Organization.

With files from the Australian Broadcasting Corp.