Hepatitis C: Controllable to Curable
At 52, real estate executive David Sherman feels better today than he’s ever felt in his adult life. “Each day I feel increasingly stronger,” he says. Seated in his Deerfield, Illinois office with a grin reflective of his infectious mood, Sherman’s newfound aura is a result of being cured of hepatitis C.
“Being hepatitis C-free is really a gift,” he says. “I don’t have to—in the back of my mind—think about infecting somebody else or ending up with liver cancer. And I can now go to dinner with friends and have a glass of wine. I know it sounds crazy, but I really missed that.”
A debilitating virus, hepatitis C is now controllable and in many cases like Sherman’s, curable due to a new triple therapy treatment that stops the virus from replicating. Last year, Sherman started the treatment at the University of Chicago Medicine that involved the drugs peginterferon, ribavirin, and a protease inhibitor, telaprevir.
Sherman’s doctor, Donald Jensen, MD, professor of medicine and director of the Center for Liver Diseases at the University, says that even newer treatments can achieve high cure rates without the use of interferon injections that were used for treatment throughout the 90s.
In fact, treatments resulting in these high cure rates could be achieved in as little as 12 weeks of an all-oral therapy. These all-oral treatments are currently in phase 3 clinical trials and are expected to be FDA approved by 2014-2015.
“The therapy that David took had a cure rate of about 75 percent, so that’s good, but we’re shooting for 100 percent,” says Jensen. “The treatment of hepatitis C is undergoing rapid and dramatic changes, which will revolutionize the field. It will make treatment easier, safer, and more accessible.”
Funding the eradication of Hepatitis C
As a result of the care he received at the medical center, Sherman and his wife Susie made a generous contribution to support Jensen and his team’s continued research on hepatitis C.
“More than anything, I felt a moral obligation to do something to invest in the area of liver disease,” Sherman says. “If I didn’t have the support of the folks at the University of Chicago, my family, and my associates here, there’s no way I would have gotten through the treatment.”
For Jensen, the funds are making possible new studies, which could eventually eradicate the disease. Support for research in the lab of Glenn Randall, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology, is building the group into one of the premier hepatitis C research labs in the country. So far, his team has developed a database needed to identify people for clinical trials and added a new fellow in hepatology with Sherman’s backing.
“We are identifying which of our own liver proteins are manipulated by the hepatitis C virus to establish its infection,” says Randall. “The idea is to then design drugs that block these virus-liver interactions and in turn block infection. David’s vision and generosity support these investigations and aids us in training the next generation of virologists.”
Today roughly 170 million people worldwide and nearly four million Americans are chronically infected with the hepatitis C virus. It has been estimated that only 25 percent of those currently carrying the virus have been diagnosed and only 11 percent have been treated.
Sherman traces his hepatitis C infection back to when he was just 17 years old. While running track his senior year of high school, he endured a freak accident that resulted in him needing a blood transfusion. “This was back in 1978, and it’s very likely that the blood supply was tainted,” he says. “What’s interesting is that I didn’t find out I had the disease until the early ‘90s when I went to a doctor and it was discovered that I had elevated enzyme levels in my liver.”
While about 40 percent of those infected with hepatitis C most likely got it through recreational drug use, more people got it through transfusions, says Jensen.
A Silent Virus
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most people with the hepatitis C virus experience no symptoms, but the most common is fatigue. And almost 75 percent of those infected are between the ages of 45-65.
Sherman, who was always a competitive athlete and felt like he was in good shape the majority of his life—even completing 20 marathons with the disease—said he knew he had a potentially grave condition. But all he knew was his body with the virus.
“The medication was difficult to endure. Once I was off the medication and the virus had disappeared, I felt better and stronger than at any time in my adult life,” he says. “My guess is that there were some effects from hepatitis C that I never knew I had.”
Living with hepatitis C also meant dealing with the stigma associated with the disease. “A lot of people don’t want to talk about it or say anything,” he says. “But people experience you how you experience yourself. Part of my attitude was I knew I had this thing so I chose to embrace, befriend, and learn from it.”
Creating Hepatitis C Awareness
By talking about his condition now, Sherman hopes to bring more awareness to the disease so that others will take advantage of the treatments that exist today. Shortly after his diagnosis, he got involved with the American Liver Foundation where he met Jensen, who has remained his doctor ever since.
“Many doctors tell their patients there’s no cure for hepatitis C, which is such a misconception,” Jensen says. “My goal is that by 2025, nobody dies of hepatitis C that is treated today and I think that’s achievable.”