Hep-Net: German Network of Competence on Viral Hepatitis, Hannover, Germany; Department of Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Endocrinology, Hannover Medical School, Hannover, Germany.
Early treatment of acute hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection with interferon alfa monotherapy is very effective, with cure rates of greater than 85%. However, spontaneous clearance of HCV occurs in 10-50% of cases. We aimed to assess an alternative treatment strategy of delayed antiviral therapy in patients who do not eliminate the virus spontaneously compared with immediate treatment.
In our open-label phase 3 non-inferiority trial, we enrolled adults (≥18 years) with acute hepatitis C but no HIV or hepatitis B co-infection at 72 centres in Germany. We randomly allocated patients with symptomatic acute hepatitis C (1:1) to receive immediate pegylated interferon alfa-2b treatment for 24 weeks or delayed treatment with pegylated interferon alfa-2b plus ribavirin (for 24 weeks) starting 12 weeks after randomisation if HCV RNA remained positive. We used a computer-generated randomisation sequence and block sizes of eight, stratified by bilirubin concentration. We assigned all asymptomatic patients to immediate treatment with pegylated interferon alfa-2b for 24 weeks. The primary endpoint was sustained HCV RNA negativity in all randomly allocated participants who completed screening (intention-to-treat analysis), with a non-inferiority margin of 10%. For the primary analysis, we calculated the virological response of patients in the immediate and delayed treatment groups and an absolute risk difference stratified by bilirubin status. The trial was stopped early on advice from the study advisory committee because of slow recruitment of participants. This study is registered, number ISRCTN88729946.
Between April, 2004, and February, 2010, we recruited 107 symptomatic and 25 asymptomatic patients. 37 (67%) of 55 symptomatic patients randomly allocated to receive immediate treatment and 28 (54%) of 52 symptomatic patients randomly allocated to receive delayed treatment had a sustained virological response (difference 13•7%, 95% CI -4•6 to 32•0; p=0•071). 18 (72%) of 25 asymptomatic patients had a sustained virological response. 22 (42%) of 52 symptomatic patients allocated to receive delayed treatment did not complete follow-up compared with 20 (25%) of 80 symptomatic or asymptomatic patients assigned immediate treatment (p=0•037). 11 symptomatic patients (21%) assigned delayed treatment had spontaneous HCV clearance. 14 patients who received delayed pegylated interferon alfa-2b plus ribavirin treatment and completed follow-up achieved sustained virological response.
Delayed treatment is effective although not of equal efficacy to immediate treatment; coupled with the rate of spontaneous clearance it can reduce unnecessary treatment in closely monitored populations. Immediate treatment seems preferable in populations where loss to follow-up is great.
German Network of Competence on Viral Hepatitis (HepNet, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, grants 01KI0102, 01KI0401, and 01KI0601), MSD, Schering-Plough.