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Vertex, Merck Drugs Help More With Faster Cure for Hepatitis C

Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Merck & Co. said their experimental drugs for hepatitis C cured more patients than traditional treatment, and many people were able to take a shorter, less toxic course of therapy.

Two-thirds of patients given Vertex’s telaprevir were able to cut their treatment time in half to six months, and about 90 percent were cured, two studies funded by the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company found. Nearly half of those given boceprevir in studies from Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-based Merck were able to reduce their treatment times to six months to nine months, with similar high rates of cure.

The findings presented today at the American Association for the Study of Liver Disease meeting in Boston will help usher in a new era of treatment for hepatitis C, doctors say. The chronic condition affects nearly 4 million Americans and 200 million people worldwide, according to the National Institutes of Health. The companies plan to file for U.S. regulatory approval of the drugs by the end of the year.

“The current standard of care is long and it’s not easy to take,” said Michael Charlton, director of the Mayo Clinic’s liver transplant program in Rochester, Minnesota. “The appeal of the new drugs is the shorter treatment, and you get there quicker with telaprevir,” he said in a telephone interview.

Standard Treatment

Hepatitis C often persists as a chronic condition that causes nausea, weakness and exhaustion as it destroys the liver over time. Interferon, the standard of care when paired with the generic drug ribavirin to increase potency, works by boosting the immune system. The yearlong treatment causes aches and pains similar to the flu that may last the entire year of treatment and cures about half of those who can tolerate it.

Roche Holding AG of Basel, Switzerland, sells a version of interferon under the brand name Pegasys, while Merck sells a form called PegIntron.

Telaprevir will capture about three-fourths of the demand for the new medicines, said Howard Liang, an analyst at Leerink Swann & Co. in Boston, in a telephone interview. The drug, which Vertex is developing with New Brunswick, New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson, will generate about $2.6 billion annually by 2013, he said.

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