Using antiviral drugs to treat chronic hepatitis C could halve the likelihood of a patient going on to suffer a type of liver cancer, according to new research.
Nine out of 10 patients presenting with primary liver cancer have hepatocellular carcinoma, and the hepatitis C infection is one of its most common causes along with cirrhosis of the liver.
But an analysis of the published research on the use of antiviral treatments interferon, pegylated interferon, ribavirin, or a combination of the drugs, showed a significant reduction of the number of hepatitis C patients who go on to develop the cancer.
It was found that if the antiviral therapy successfully cleared the infection and kept it away for at least six months then the chance of a person suffering a relapse was very low.
The team behind the report studied eight trials involving people with hepatitis C who had gone on to develop chronic inflammation and fibrosis or cirrhosis of the liver.
Out of the 1,174 patients who did not receive any type of antiviral treatment, 129 of them developed liver cancer. But of the 1,156 people who were given antiviral drugs, just 81 went on to have the disease - indicating the therapy reduced the risk by 47%.
Patients who took the antiviral drugs and found they were clear of hepatitis C for a long time had an 85% lower risk of getting cancer than those who found the infection returned. Although even patients who had not found antiviral treatment very effective in clearing the hepatitis C virus still had a 43% lower risk of developing liver cancer than those on different types of drugs.
But the authors warned that as the study had limited information on the long-term outcomes of those involved, it could be that antiviral treatment slows down the appearance of cancer rather than stopping it altogether.
The standard treatment for hepatitis C is now interferon and ribavirin. And the authors said the infection was now usually detected at an earlier stage than in the past, making it less likely to cause the problems associated with the risk of liver cancer.