In March, Robert Hastings celebrated two major milestones – the two-year anniversary of his liver transplant and being cured of Hepatitis C (Hep C). His journey began 11 years ago when his wife encouraged him to be tested for the virus. Her liver enzymes were elevated and she wanted to know why. A test revealed that she had the Hep C virus.
Robert recalls, “She immediately encouraged me to get tested. She was concerned that I might have it, too.” He tested positive, but his Hep C was a different strain – one that would be more difficult to cure.
The drug therapy available at the time was a combination of interferon and ribavirin. Robert wanted to do everything he could to beat the disease and proceeded forward with a 48-week course of interferon and ribavirin. “Following treatment, I rocked along for several years. But when I started to get sicker, I did research and found Dr. Weinstein.” For four years, Robert was under the care of his hepatologist Jeffrey Weinstein, MD, medical director of liver transplantation and hepatobiliary services at the Liver Institute Methodist Dallas, when his liver began to fail. His only treatment option was transplantation. He waited for three years for a transplant and received his new liver on March 15, 2011.
Transplantation doesn’t cure Hep C, so following the transplant, Dr. Weinstein resumed treatment of Robert’s Hep C in a research protocol at the Liver Institute with a new class of all oral drugs that target the virus without the use of interferon. “The new treatments are much better with fewer side effects,” recalls Robert. “There were more bad days than good when I took interferon in 2002. In 2013, my treatment allowed me to continue to work, and I had very little down time. What a difference 10 years makes!”
While Robert was waiting for a transplant, in 2009, older brother James Hastings discovered he also had Hep C. “I had donated blood and the blood bank called me and said I had Hep C, “ says James. “I had no symptoms at the time so I went to my local physician, who decided the best treatment course was watchful waiting.” At Robert’s encouragement, James came to see Dr. Weinstein. After his own experience, Robert knew that James would need a liver biopsy to determine the severity of his Hep C.
“Dr. Weinstein did a biopsy, and I learned that I had major liver damage even though I had no symptoms,” recalls James. “While I have a good family doctor, I immediately realized the difference in having an expert treat my Hep C. I was grateful to have Dr. Weinstein take charge of my care before the damage got worse.”
James’ treatment involved two clinical trials that were conducted through the Liver Institute at Methodist Dallas. He successfully completed the first trial, but the virus recurred within 6 months of the completion of his treatment. He opted to take a year off from treatment before joining a new drug trial that included 36-weeks of interferon and ribavirin combined with 24 weeks of therapy with a new protease inhibitor. “The addition of the protease inhibitor was to make sure the virus was gone for good this time,” says James. “Today, Hep C is past tense for me.”
Born in the mid-1950s, the Hastings brothers are Baby Boomers – a generation that is disproportionately impacted by Hep C. More than 75 percent of adults infected with Hep C were born between 1945 and 1965 according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
The new class of directly acting antiviral therapies such as protease and polymerase inhibitors has been a game changer in the treatment of Hepatitis C for patients like the Hastings. Significant progress continues to be made through significant clinical research being conducted by hepatobiliary centers of excellence like the Liver Institute at Methodist Dallas.
Explains Dr. Weinstein, “These new drugs target the Hepatitis C virus specifically as opposed to older therapies that enhanced your immune response against the virus. This is a tremendous advantage for patients, who not only have fewer severe side effects, but also benefit from a shorter treatment time — from 48 weeks to as little as 12 weeks.”
Dr. Weinstein continues, “Outcomes have also improved substantially. Fifteen years ago, Hepatitis C cure rates in adults averaged about 40-50 percent. Today, 80- to 90-percent of our adult Hepatitis C patients are cured – including patients like Robert who are more complex due to his transplant.”
The Hasting brothers are grateful to be free of Hep C. They encourage all adults to be tested for the disease. “There’s a cure,” says Robert. “That’s reason enough to be tested early, treated early, and on the road back to health.”