A new generation of drugs with the potential to cure the hepatitis C is set to flood the market.
Hepatitis C virus (HCV) infects liver cells and can cause cirrhosis and liver cancer. It affects about 3 percent of the world's population - and new treatments are urgently needed.
This month, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and drug behemoth Merck, headquartered in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, both released promising results from late-stage clinical trials of their leading drugs against HCV.
The two treatments belong to the first wave of what pharmaceutical analysts think will be a profusion of HCV-targeting drugs that could ring up billions of dollars in annual sales.
"There certainly is blockbuster potential for new and efficacious drugs in hepatitis C," Nature quoted Hedwig Kresse, a drug-market analyst at Datamonitor in London, as saying.
Both Vertex's drug telaprevir and Merck's boceprevir block HCV's protease enzyme so that it cannot carry out one of its key tasks. All of HCV's proteins are initially produced as one long polyprotein, which needs to be cleaved into its component proteins by the protease. Blocking the protease prevents the virus from producing functional proteins.
The companies will submit their medicines to the US Food and Drug Administration by the end of this year, with an eye towards approval in mid-2011.
If approved, telaprevir and boceprevir will take the early lead in an HCV drug field that could grow to be worth 15 billion dollars by 2017, according to Irena Melnikova, a life-sciences analyst at TVM Capital in Boston, Massachusetts. The field is poised to become even more crowded in the coming years.
"There are still going to be a number of patients who fail [to be cured by] telaprevir or boceprevir," said Chang.
"There's plenty of market to still go after." Chang added.