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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

       

Treatment Options for Chronic Hepatitis B Not Responding to Standard Interferon Alfa

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 Treatment Options for Chronic Hepatitis B Not Responding to Standard
 Interferon Alfa
 
 In an editorial published in the recent issue of the Journal of Hepatology
 (June 2003) Stephanos Hadziyannis, MD, discusses the current options for
 treatment of chronic hepatitis B.
 
 Dr. Hadziyannis is associated with the Department of Medicine and Hepatology,
 Henry Dunant Hospital in Athens, Greece. His comments represent a thoughtful
 examination of the complexities regarding treatment in different hepatitis
 B-infected patient populations requiring therapy. Following are highlights of
 his editorial.
 
 
 
       1. The natural course of chronic hepatitis B and the need for treatment
       2. Efficacy of currently available therapies in chronic hepatitis B
       3. Treatment options for chronic hepatitis B refractory to IFNa
 
 
 1. The natural course of chronic hepatitis B and the need for treatment
 Chronic hepatitis B (CHB) defined by the presence of hepatitis B surface
 antigen (HBsAg) in serum, high levels of circulating hepatitis B virus (HBV)
 DNA and chronic necroinflammation of the liver is separated into two forms
 based on the hepatitis B e antigen (HBeAg) and antibody (anti-HBe) status.
 
 The HBeAg-positive CHB considered as the typical, prototype form of the
 disease, occurs in earlier phases of chronic HBV infection than HBeAg-negative
 CHB, it prevails in European and North American patients infected with HBV
 genotype A and is characterized by persistently high serum aminotransferases
 (ALT) and hepatitis B viraemia levels.
 
 In perinatally acquired HBV infection, which is common in geographical areas
 of high HBV prevalence like Asia, it appears to follow a period of immune
 tolerance of HBV during which HBV DNA levels are high while ALT levels keep
 normal or nearly normal and liver necroinflammtion is minimal or absent.
 
 When HBeAg-positive CHB develops, serum ALT levels increase and liver damage
 progresses to severe necroinflammation with advancing fibrosis. If
 HBeAg-positive CHB is left untreated it may subside spontaneously terminating
 into loss of HBeAg, seroconversion to anti-HBe, suppression of HBV replication
 to non-detectability by molecular hybridization techniques or to <103-104
 copies/ml by polymerase chain reaction, return of ALT to normal and resolution
 of liver disease activity.

    


 
 However, the probability of spontaneous resolution of HBeAg-positive CHB is
 limited to approximately 10-12% per year (ranging in the various studies from
 2 to 24%.
 
 Thus, a large number of untreated patients with HBeAg-positive CHB are left
 with severe liver necroinflammation which persists for several years and
 results in an increased likelihood of progression of liver damage to advanced
 stages of fibrosis, cirrhosis and even development of hepatocellular carcinoma
 (HCC), the most dire consequence in the natural history of CHB.
 
 In a recent study, the relative risk of HCC among men positive both for HBsAg
 and HBeAg was 60.2 compared to 9.2 in those with only HBsAg. The need,
 therefore, for early and effective therapeutic intervention in HBeAg-positive
 CHB is obvious, but unfortunately it has remained an unresolved issue of
 clinical hepatology for more than 20 years now.
 
 In the HBeAg-negative form of CHB, which prevails in the Mediterranean Area
 and Asia and is mostly due to precore HBV mutants, serum HBV DNA levels are
 lower than in HBeAg-positive CHB, generally between 104 and 108 copies/ml.
 Both HBV DNA and serum ALT levels are often fluctuating. However, spontaneous
 remissions are extremely rare and prognosis is poor with frequent progression
 to cirrhosis and HCC. Therefore, similar to HBeAg-positive CHB, the need for
 effective therapeutic intervention is again obvious.
 
 2. Efficacy of currently available therapies in chronic hepatitis B
 Treatment of CHB is aiming to suppress HBV replication and to induce remission
 in liver disease before cirrhosis and HCC develop. Biochemical, virologic and
 histological responses achieved under any treatment should be durable after
 discontinuation of therapy (sustained responses or SR).
 
 Currently there are three approved treatments for CHB aiming at SR: interferon
 alfa (IFNa), lamivudine [Epivir-HBV] and recently, adefovir dipivoxil
 [Hepsera]. The efficacy of these therapies differs greatly between

 HBeAg-positive and HBeAg-negative CHB.
 
 In general, the goal of SR appears to be achievable in HBeAg-positive CHB,
 albeit at low frequencies, by finite courses of treatment with any of the
 three existing drugs whereas in HBeAg-negative CHB only IFNa may be able to
 induce SR but only in a small percentage of patients.

    



 In HBeAg-positive CHB therapy with IFNa, lamivudine, and adefovir dipivoxil of
defined duration, ranging from 12 to 24 weeks for IFNa and for 24-52 weeks for
 the nucleos(t)ide analogs, appears to achieve loss of HBeAg, seroconversion to
 anti-HBe, normalizaion of ALT and loss of HBV DNA by molecular hybridization
 techniques at roughly comparable frequencies of 20-30%, two to three times
 higher compared to untreated controls.
 
 Responses to IFNa seem to be durable, probably more than responses to
 lamivudine, being subsequently followed by loss of HBsAg in approx 8%.The
 efficacy of IFNa treatment in HBeAg-positive CHB seems to increase with longer
 duration of therapy and probably with the administration of pegylated IFNa2a.
 Extension of lamivudine treatment in HBeAg-positive CHB from 1 to 3 and more
years has also been reported to increase the HBeAg seroconversion rate.
 
 IFNa treatment of HBeAg-negative CHB for 12 and more months has also been
 effective in inducing SR in 15-20% of treated and retreated patients followed,
 in some of them, by clearance of HBsAg as well.
 
 On the other hand, SR to lamivudine treatment in HBeAg-negative CHB, whatever
 its duration, have hitherto been reported only in rare instances while no
 information regarding SR after stopping adefovir dipivoxil treatment in
 HBeAg-negative CHB is available yet.
 
 Thus, several investigators are currently treating patients with
 HBeAg-negative CHB indefinitely with nucleos(t)ide analogs to achieve
 long-lasting virologic, biochemical and histological responses.
 
 
 
 3. Treatment options for chronic hepatitis B refractory to IFNa
 For patients with CHB not responding to a first course of IFNa there are three
 possible options aiming at SR:
 
 (a)     Re-treatment with IFNa, preferably pegylated IFNa and for longer
 periods of time;
 
 (b)     Treatment course with lamivudine or adefovir dipivoxil; and
 
 (c)     Some short of combination therapy. However, for the time being, few if
 any evidence-based recommendations can be made for the management of IFNa
 non-responders.
 
 Since SR to IFNa may be achieved several months after therapy has been
 discontinued, patients should not be considered as IFNa non-responders prior
 to at least 6 months of post-treatment follow-up. A second treatment regimen
 may then be initiated with the aim to reduce the duration of active liver
 disease.
 
 But what type of treatment can be effective in these patients? There are few
 available data and these should be considered separately for HBeAg-positive
 and HBeAg-negative patients.
 
 In HBeAg-positive patients with CHB who did not respond to a first course of
 IFNa, re-treatment for 6 months with 9 MU of IFNa thrice weekly has been
 associated with a 33% SR rate compared to 10% in untreated controls. In an
 earlier study of a small group of patients who failed a first course of IFNa
 only 11% responded to a 16-week regimen with a daily dose of 1.5-5 MU of IFNa.
 
 Data on IFN re-treatment of patients with HBeAg-negative CHB are very limited.
 A recent study reported a SR of 31% after a second course of IFNa among 51
 patients with HBeAg-negative CHB who had relapsed or had no response to
 previous IFNa treatment.
 
 HBeAg-positive patients who had previously failed IFNa monotherapy have been
 included in trials of lamivudine and adefovir dipivoxil monotherapy. Of 17
 IFNa failures treated with lamivudine, five achieved sustained HBV DNA
 clearance and three HBeAg seroconversion to anti-HBe.
 
 In the recently published adefovir studies response rates under therapy did
 not differ between treatment-naïve and previously IFNa-treated patients both
 in the HBeAg-positive and HBeAg-negative groups.
 
 Finally Mutimer et al. have used combination of IFNa with lamivudine for 16
 weeks in 20 patients who had previously failed IFN monotherapy. Its efficacy
 was disappointing, however, only one patient out of four achieving HBeAg
 seroconversion during treatment with maintaining this response after stopping
 treatment.
 
 However, in a recent pilot study of sequential treatment with lamivudine and
 IFNa monotherapies in CHB patients not responding to IFNa alone, sustained
 serum HBV DNA clearance 6 months after the end of sequential treatment was
 achieved in eight out of 14 patients, HBeAg to anti-HBe seroconversion in five
 out of 11 and HBsAg seroconversion to anti-HBs in three out of 14 patients.
 
 In an article  n this issue of the Journal, Schiff et al. report the results
 of a multi-center trial on the efficacy of lamivudine monotherapy versus
 combination of lamivudine with IFNa or no treatment in 238 HBeAg-positive CHB
 patients who were non-responders to a previous course of IFNa.
 
 Lamivudine given for 52-68 weeks was found to be as effective in IFNa
 non-responders as in previously reported treatment-naïve patients and
 significantly superior than the combination of lamivudine for 24 weeks and
 IFNa for 16 weeks, both in terms of histologic response and HBeAg loss (52 and
 33% versus 32 and 21%, respectively).
 
 In the placebo group the rates of histologic improvement and of spontaneous
 HBeAg loss were 25 and 13%, respectively. However, seroconversion to anti-HBe
 was not statistically better in the lamivudine (18%) than in the combination
 (13%) and the placebo group (12%).
 
 The results of this study bring again into the therapeutic scenery the
 existing controversy over the efficacy of various schemes and dosages of
 combination therapies of interferon and lamivudine or other antiviral agents
 for patients with CHB.
 

 Schiff et al., constrained by regulatory considerations, could not include a
 pegylated-IFNa regimen, and had to restrict the duration of IFNa only to the
 approved period of 16 weeks. They have also considered that IFNa
 non-responders were unlikely to respond to re-treatment with standard IFNa
 because the promising results of two recent studies on IFNa re-treatment were
 not available at the time this trial was designed.
 
 Thus, 8 weeks of lamivudine treatment followed by a 16-week period of
 combination of lamivudine with IFNa were compared to a full year and more of
 lamivudine monotherapy.
 
 The authors recognize these problems and in a thoughtful discussion they
 stress the need for other approaches to combination therapies of IFNa with
 nucleoside analogs in treatment-naïve patients and IFNa non-responders with
 CHB.
 
 In this context the results of two large multi-center trials with combination
 therapy for 1 year with pegylated IFNa and lamivudine versus lamivudine and
 pegylated IFNa monotherapy also for 1 year both in HBeAg-positive
 and -negative patients are anxiously awaited.
 
 Regardless of existing conjectures, it is becoming increasingly obvious that
 the strategy of combining IFNa with nucleoside analogs whatever the order and
 duration of application of the two drugs, may improve the efficacy of finite
 courses of treatment but is not expected to revolutionize the management of
 CHB neither in treatment-naïve nor in IFNa resistant patients.
 
 Therefore many investigators are turning from the IFNa based therapeutic
 approaches to long-term suppression of HBV replication by safe nucleoside
 analogs with little or no viral resistance.
 
 The recent availability of adefovir with an excellent safety and resistance
 profile  makes this approach realistic and attractive.