I am a 57-year-old white American male infected with Hepatitis C. I am involved in a controlled medical research study by Roche Pharmaceuticals of an experimental Polymerase Inhibitor (RO5024048 also known as RG7128) drug therapy for the virus. This document is the story of my illness and the experience of treatment. My lovely and pretty damn wonderful wife will be contributing her take on the experience as well.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Science Café About Hepatitis C Research

San Francisco has a thriving science and nerd community. A symptom of that is the wide array of science events that occur throughout the Bay Area every month. One of them is a monthly series titled “Science Café” in which a scientist or two is inveigled to come to a local café and talk for a few hours about their area of expertise. The most recent event was about Hepatitis C.

The Atlas Café was the scene and the scientists were Dr. Melanie Ott of the Gladstone Institute who researches the reproduction cycle of the Hep C virus and Dr. Todd Frederick a Hepatologist at the California Pacific Medical Center who treats Hep C patients. As a disclaimer I must mention that Dr. Frederick has examined, palpated and prescribed for me as part of the Polymerase Inhibitor study I was in.

Dr. Frederick gave an overview of the scope of the Hep C epidemic and the nature of current treatments available to combat it. He talked about the new protease inhibitors Telaprevir and Boceprevir that are awaiting FDA approval to be used in combination with interferon and ribavirin. He also gave a hint at possible future therapies using polymerase inhibitors with interferon and ribavirin and the possible combination of polymerase and protease inhibitors with ribavirin to create a treatment regimen that does not use interferon.

Dr. Ott gave us a basic yet thorough crash course in the reproductive cycle of the Hep C virus. She revealed its dependence on fat molecules in human cells and the promising area of research involved in using fat disabling compounds to interfere with the ability of the Hep C virus to reproduce itself. She also had a very cool animation that illustrated the reproductive cycle of the virus. She was quick to state that this was still basic, in the petri dish research and many years away from demonstrating efficacy in living organisms. It was fascinating stuff and the crowd of 30 was intent throughout both presentations.

A few of the questions asked in the Q & A were about the new compounds being developed and particularly about the issue of deciding whether to treat now or wait for new developments. Dr. Frederick clearly attempted to be balanced in his answers, but as a doctor involved in clinical trials of promising new compounds he is really exited about the possibilities of the new treatment combinations and he showed a bit of a bias towards waiting for new developments.

I respect Dr. Frederick’s viewpoint a great deal, but I think if you are seriously considering entering treatment, you need to consider a wide range of factors beyond the simple consideration of treatment outcome percentages. The condition of your general health, the condition of your liver, the amount of impact the disease is having on your quality of life, your family situation, your housing situation, your work situation, your insurance situation, your financial situation, the quality of support you can expect, all of these are important factors to consider in your decision. We still don’t know when the new drugs will be approved, how quickly they may be included in insurance company covered drug rosters, and how much they will cost (though we do know they will be expensive). So think it all through thoroughly and carefully before making a decision. While the future may be so bright we gotta wear shades, the shades might be very expensive and the future a bit further off than we would wish.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Personal Evidence of Cognitive Deficits from Hepatitis C Treatment

I am writing this piece having finally managed to tear myself away from the television after watching almost 90 minutes of the Adam Sandler vehicle “You Don’t Mess With The Zohan.” If that is not evidence enough that 46 weeks of treatment have eroded my mental capacities, let me add this nugget: I had to get up, go downstairs, turn the television on and check the listings to remember the name of the movie. Having walked away from the TV not 3 minutes earlier, I could only remember that the movie had the word Zohan in the title but could not recall the complete title.

In the past 6 months of treatment, my critical capacities have deteriorated to the point that I have descended from watching “Celebrity Rehab” through “Jersey Shore” and “Basketball Wives” and now am watching, and more embarrassingly being entertained by, Adam Sandler movies. I have 26 weeks to go in my Hep C chemo regimen, what will I be watching by next June, “Jackass 7, Stupid Geezers in 3D”?

The sad part is that I cannot help myself and neither it seems, can other Hep C chemo veterans. Almost everyone I have talked to about their treatment has admitted that the same thing happened to them. The lucky ones were finally so tired and concentrationally challenged they could not even muster the energy to pay attention to television and just sat staring into space. I suspect that would be preferable to Rob Schneider, Johnny Knoxville, Dane Cook or whatever else might be passing in front of my eyeballs by the end of this.

It is disconcerting to think that this result has a tiny chance of remaining permanent. While I might end up being perfectly happy as a drooling idiot for the rest of my life, I suspect my wife would find that less charming.

But, looking on the bright side, when I finally stop the interferon I can document in painful detail the increase in brain function, the gradual increase in my boredom threshold and the return of my memory. Given that I’ll be approaching 60 by the time I fully recover from all this, I wonder how I will be able to tell if my memory is back or not…

I admit that all of this is anecdotal evidence from a small set of treatment-experienced individuals and does not attain the level of statistical validity, but it is nonetheless disturbing. I’m not sure what would happen if I started to bug my wife to come with me to the latest Adam Sandler classic on opening night.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Managing Serotonin Update

It’s been just over 4 weeks since I cut down on the drugs that affect the serotonin levels in the brain. I was taking trazadone for sleep, tramadol for pain and daily doses of Celexa for depression. I cut out the tramadol and the trazadone and, after consultation with my hepatologist Dr. Bzowej, replaced them with Ambien and Vicodin. The results have been significant.

I have noticed that I am physically calmer. My hands are steadier and the random muscle twitching I have been experiencing has receded a bit. I still have all the hyperactivity behaviors I’ve had all my life (leg bouncing, pacing, etc.) but I am not as physically tense and tight as I was 4 weeks ago. My teeth-clenching and grinding have both subsided and the tendency to get caught in negative mental feedback loops (or to put it another way, become obsessed with other people’s irritating behavior) has also declined. Not to be continually catching myself thinking about other people and their foibles really reduces the stress load.

Among the downside to the change is that I am now using Vicodin for pain. Tramadol was relatively mild in its mental effects compared to vicodin. The days I have to take two doses to relieve the aching and allow sleep leave me loopy while I’m taking it and groggy the next morning. Given that serotonin overload can result in seizures and occasionally death, I’ll deal with vicodin’s side effects, it’s just that losing even more mental acuity while I’m taking it means I have even less to work with.

Ambien works differently as well. It is not as strong as trazadone. That means that I don’t wake up groggy, but I also wake up much more during the night. Trazadone would generally allow me to get at least one stretch of 3-4 hours of sleep during the night. The ambien puts me to sleep more gently but also not as deeply and I generally sleep for no more than 2 hours at a time. I wake up feeling rested so it is apparently having the desired effect, it just accomplishes it differently.

The change in medications has done me good. This reinforces the fact that you have to pay close attention to your own physical state and close attention as well to your drugs, their doses and their interactions. Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor about any symptoms you think may be related to any of your drugs. They can’t help you if you don’t talk to them. Make sure that you get your questions and concerns are answered in any meetings you have with your doctors and nurses.

Now that my mental state is calmer and steadier and my energy is returning after the emotional roller coaster of the San Francisco Giants World Championship drive, I hope to have more frequent postings. Thanks to all of you who have commented and offered support. I hope the rally thong ends up in Cooperstown…