A new combination of hepatitis C drugs has proved successful against some of the toughest cases of the liver-destroying virus, illuminating an effective and injection-free therapy that may eventually allow physicians to eliminate the infection that currently kills way more U.S. citizens than AIDS does, officials from Johns Hopkins University said on Wednesday.

Dr. Mark Sulkowski, medical director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Viral Hepatitis and lead author of an accompanying study, said in a press release that the success of the new trial hints at a future where hepatitis C infections aren’t necessarily cured with onerous therapy programs and injected drugs. "This research paves the way for safe, tolerable, and effective treatment options for the vast majority of those infected with hepatitis C," he said. "Standard treatments for the disease are going to improve dramatically within the next year, leading to unprecedented advances for the treatment of patients infected with the hepatitis C virus."

What the results show is that a combination of one experimental and one recently approved hepatitis C pill can eliminate the infection in cases where the conventional “triple therapy” fails. By administering the drugs daclatasvir and sofosbuvir, physicians may be able to cure patients who do not respond to the usual combination of so-called protease inhibitors, ribavirin, and peginterferon. The latter, which comes in the form of a weekly injection, has long been dreaded for its side effects.

A New Way To Treat Hepatitis C

For the study, Sulkowski and colleagues enrolled a clinical trial of 211 men and women diagnosed with one of the three known strains of the infection. The participants, who were either untreated or resistant to triple therapy, were given a daily combination of 60 milligrams of daclatasvir and 400 milligrams of sofosbuvir. Notably, subjects did not necessarily take ribavirin — a drug that has been an important part of virtually all successful therapies to date.

The findings of the study show that, at the end of the three-month trial, 98 percent of the participants had no detectable virus in their blood and were deemed cured of the disease. According to Sulkowski, this means that the so-called standard “pill burden” of hepatitis C therapy could soon go from 18 pills a day and a weekly infection to only one or two pills daily. “By demonstrating high rates of use in the absence of interferon alfa [peginterferon] injections and ribavrin pills, this study paves the way for easier, more effective treatments for chronic hepatitis C infection, which in recent years is responsible for the deaths of more Americans than HIV infection,” he wrote in an email to Medical Daily.

Eliminating Hepatitis C

The current trial is one of the first to make use of sofosbuvir, a newly developed drug that received approval from the Food and Drug Administration in December of 2013. The pill, which was developed by Gilead Sciences, has been billed as one of the first examples of a new generation of drugs that stand to make hepatitis C history. By “disguising” itself as a piece of RNA, the drug shuts down the virus’ replication process, allowing the body to clear the infection once and for all.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hepatitis C currently affects 3.2 million people in the U.S. alone, making it the most common blood-borne infection in the nation. The infection, which attacks the liver, is usually accompanied by a range of renal symptoms, including dark urine, jaundice, and clay-colored stool. Patients also suffer joint pain, fever, nausea, and vomiting. To learn more about hepatitis C treatment and prevention, visit the Mayo Clinic’s online guide.