BOSTON -- A standard AIDS drug appears to slow liver damage caused by hepatitis B.
A study in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine looked at the effects of the drug 3TC on people with long-standing infections with the virus.
It found that after a year of treatment, signs of inflammatory injury fell significantly in just over half of those getting the medicine, compared with one-quarter of those on dummy medication.
The drug, also known as lamivudine or Epivir, is one of several that block production of an essential viral protein known as reverse transcriptase. Both the AIDS virus and hepatitis B use this enzyme.
Worldwide, more than 300 million people are infected with hepatitis B, and three-quarters of them are of Asian origin. The virus can cause cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Currently, the the only approved treatment is interferon alpha, which can cause flu-like side effects. The researchers said 3TC is easier to take and may work better, although the two medicines have not been compared head to head.
The study was conducted on 358 patients in China. It was directed by Dr. Ching-Lung Lai of the University of Hong Kong and financed by Glaxo Wellcome, which makes the medicine.
In an editorial, Dr. Masao Omata of the University of Tokyo noted that one year of treatment is unlikely to have an effect on people's health, and studies of longer use are needed.