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Abstract

Hepatitis C is a major cause of liver disease leading to cirrhosis. Although interferon (IFN) is the only approved therapy, treatment is characterized by low response rates and dose-limiting side effects. We evaluated the addition of thymosin α1 (TA1), an immunomodulatory peptide, to the standard treatment regimen for hepatitis C to determine if combination therapy shows biological activity using outcome measures including normalization of alanine aminotransferase levels, histological activity, and viral load during treatment. We performed a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial to compare the biological activity of a combination TA1 and IFN with that seen for IFN alone in patients with chronic hepatitis C infection. One hundred nine patients were randomized for intention to treat and received 1.6 mg of TA1 subcutaneously twice weekly and 3 MU of IFN three times weekly; 3 MU of IFN three times weekly and placebo TA1; or placebo for both agents. All patients had chronic HCV infection with confirmation of chronic hepatitis on liver biopsy. Biochemical responders were followed up until alanine aminotransferase (ALT) levels became abnormal or for 26 weeks, and relapsers were retreated for 26 weeks in the same treatment arm. One hundred three patients completed treatment for 26 weeks, and six patients dropped out. The groups were similar with regard to sex, gender distribution, baseline histological activity index (HAI) score, risk factors, and viral titers. End-of-treatment biochemical response was seen in 37.1% of patients treated with combination therapy, 16.2% of patients treated with IFN alone, and 2.7% of untreated controls by intent-to-treat analysis (IFN/TA1 vs. IFN, χ2 = 4.05, P = .04). HCV RNA clearance was seen in 37.1% of IFN/TA1-treated patients and 18.9% of IFN-treated subjects. Mean HCV RNA titers were significantly lower than baseline at weeks 8, 16, and 24 after drug initiation among patients treated with IFN/TA1 but not in the other treatment arms. Histological improvement, as evidenced by a decrease in HAI of more than two points, occurred in the combination therapy arm more frequently than in comparison groups. Cumulative sustained biochemical responses were 14.2% and 8.1% in the IFN/TA1 and IFN arms, respectively, based on an intention-to-treat model. The combination of TA1 and standard IFN treatment for chronic hepatitis C showed evidence of biological activity at the completion of treatment by biochemical, histological, and virological outcome measures. Further research involving longer duration and varied dosing is needed.