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Some New Mexico drug users to take part in hepatitis C study

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Researchers plan to enroll some New Mexico injection-drug users infected with hepatitis C in a nationwide study seeking the most effective models for treating the liver-damaging disease.

The University of New Mexico will receive $2.3 million for the study to compare two models for treating the blood-borne virus, which is commonly transmitted by needle sharing among injection-drug users. UNM is one of eight U.S. sites that will participate in the $14 million five-year study, and treat an estimated 1,000 people nationally.

“UNM was selected because we have the clinical research infrastructure and support, and we’re committed to understanding and improving health disparities in New Mexico,” said Dr. Kimberly Page, a UNM professor of internal medicine, who will oversee UNM’s part of the study.

Hepatitis C infects an estimated 3 million people in the U.S., and up to 35,000 in New Mexico. The disease is the leading cause of liver transplants.

Safe and effective antiviral drugs, such as Harvoni, have revolutionized the treatment of hepatitis C in recent years, but injection-drug users rarely get these treatments, according to a project summary issued by Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit funding the $14 million study.

The new hepatitis C drugs are expensive, and physicians may be reluctant to treat injection-drug users out of concern that patients won’t take their medication, or that they may become reinfected.

Several good treatment models for injection-drug users have been developed, the summary said. One model uses directly observed treatment under observation by a medical provider. The other uses a “patient navigator” model, which relies on patients to take their medications at home with support from public health workers.

Patients who are cured will be followed for two years to determine whether they become reinfected.