The medicine is chlorcyclizine HCL, an antihistamine that has been around for a half-century. Researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health have found that chlorcyclizine and similar “repurposed” drugs can treat hepatitis C by blocking the virus so it cannot infect liver cells.
The discovery was made using a cell-based, high-throughput screening method. The technique is used to analyze thousands of government-approved compounds quickly for their effectiveness against viral and bacterial infections.
Jake Liang, chief of the Liver Diseases Branch at NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases near Washington, where the discovery was made, said that the hepatitis virus “continues to infect new cells as the infection goes on. So, our thought is, if we can prevent or destruct that reinfection process, the infected cells will die eventually, so you would not have any more infected cells.”
Hepatitis C is spread through sexual contact or infected blood products. It can lead to liver failure, cancer, and cirrhosis or hardening of the liver.
Millions of people around the world carry the hepatitis C virus or are ill because of it. Liang noted that effective treatments are now available, “but the current drugs are expensive, have side effects and are associated with resistance. Also, these drugs are only active against certain HP strains. So, in light of these issues, I think there’s still … a need in the treatment of hepatitis.”
The price tag for current hepatitis C drugs is approximately $84,000 for a 12-week course. In contrast, chlorcyclizine costs about 50 cents a pill.