Hepatitis C is one of the most common viral infections in the world and it increases the risk for liver cancer. But researchers have discovered that treatment with antiviral drugs could cut in half the risk of developing the most common and deadly form of liver cancer.
There are close to 200 million people around the world who are infected with hepatitis C, or HCV, a viral disease that can be transmitted sexually or through contaminated blood transfusions. The chronic, debilitating liver infection, which causes fatigue, muscle aches and jaundice, is a major risk factor for developing hepatocellular carcinoma - the most common form of liver cancer worldwide. Now, Danish researchers have found evidence that HCV patients who receive antiviral therapy not only have less inflammation but are also at significantly lower risk of developing liver cancer.
The researchers say patients who managed to keep the virus at bay with interferon drugs for six months were virtually cured, and the chances of a relapse and the development of cancer were very small. Patients who cleared the Hepatitis C virus had an 85 percent lower risk of developing liver cancer.
In a group of 1174 patients who received no antiviral interferon treatment, 129 patients developed liver cancer. In a similar-sized group of patients who WERE treated, only 81 developed liver cancer - equivalent to a reduction in cancer risk of 47 percent. Both groups were monitored for between five and eight years.
Nina Kimer, a gastroenterologist at Copenhagen University, led the study. She says those who took the drugs but did not have a robust response also had a lower risk of developing cancer.
“We were not the first study to show this, but our findings definitely support this hypothesis that the non-responders to treatment are also protected when they are treated," said Kimer.
Kimer says the study's findings suggest early detection and treatment of hepatitis C is very important.
“If people come into [the] hospital with stomach aches, we do not just conclude one thing. We try out many options. So the disease is diagnosed earlier," she said.
Hepatitis C can lead to cancer by causing cirrhosis or scarring of the liver.
A study on the effectiveness of hepatitis C treatments in reducing liver cancer risk is published in the journal BMJ Open Editions.