Objective: To evaluate ribavirin, an oral antiviral agent, as therapy for chronic hepatitis C.
Design: Randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study.
Setting: Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health, a tertiary referral research hospital.
Patients: 29 patients with chronic hepatitis C who received oral ribavirin (600 mg twice daily) for 12 months and 29 controls with chronic hepatitis C who received placebo for 12 months.
Measurements: Effects of therapy were evaluated by measuring serum aminotransferase and hepatitis C virus (HCV) RNA levels before, during, and for 6 months after therapy and by histologic examination of liver specimens before and at the end of treatment.
Results: Patients treated with ribavirin had a prompt decrease in serum aminotransferase levels (54% overall) compared with levels before treatment and levels in controls (5% decrease). Serum aminotransferase levels became normal or nearly normal in 10 patients treated with ribavirin (35% [95% CI, 18% to 54%]) but in no controls (0% [CI, 0% to 12%]). Aminotransferase levels remained normal in only 2 patients after ribavirin therapy was discontinued (7% [CI, 1% to 23%]). Serum HCV RNA levels did not change during or after therapy. Liver biopsy specimens showed a decrease in hepatic inflammation and necrosis among ribavirin-treated patients whose aminotransferase levels became normal.
Conclusions: Ribavirin has beneficial effects on serum aminotransferase levels and histologic findings in the liver in patients with chronic hepatitis C, but these effects are not accompanied by changes in HCV RNA levels and are not sustained when ribavirin therapy is discontinued. Thus, ribavirin alone for periods as long as 12 months is unlikely to be of value as therapy for chronic hepatitis C.