Site change aids local hepatitis research

BY TYLER LYON | JULY 30, 2009 7:11 AM

Researchers for Vertex Pharmaceuticals of Cambridge, Mass., are developing a medication that could cut treatment time for hepatitis C in half. But until Wednesday, they were almost crawling over each other to do it.

The company officially opened a new research facility at the UI BioVentures Center on the Oakdale Campus on Wednesday afternoon, moving across the street from its old, less-adequate facility.

Now, the seven members of the Iowa team have space tailored to their needs, said the associate director and site head for the Vertex Iowa team, Ute Müh.

Müh said one of the biggest advantages of the move is gaining four labs and four offices, including a dedicated conference room.

“We are no longer crowding into my office, all seven of us practically sitting on my desk so we can video conference with Cambridge,” she said.

The researchers also now have space for their robots, a new isotope room, and wet labs, which are used for chemical research, Müh said. All of which will help the company complete research on its new treatment for hepatitis C.

The drug is called Telaprevir; Ann Kwong, the Vertex head of infectious diseases, said it could cut the usual recovery time in half.

It usually takes 48 weeks to complete treatment using current medication, she said, and 24 more weeks to guarantee the treatment is successful. However, she said, the current treatment has a fail rate of about 60 percent as well as another downside.

“It also makes you feel terrible,” Kwong said. “These people feel like they have the flu for a year.”

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The reason for the lower recovery time is because the drug Telaprevir — when taken with the other drugs — prevents the virus from replicating, and patients experience an improvement in recovery by more than 20 percent.

The drug is in its third stage of development — determining the ideal dose — which is the last stage needed to submit the drug for approval in the United Sates and Europe, Kwong said.

“For the clinical trials, we have to monitor whether the patients who don’t get [sustained virological response] if they become resistant to the drug,” she said.

The data gathered in this stage of research will go toward a new drug application, she said.
Diane Gallagher, the UI interim director of the Research Park & BioVentures Center, said the success of the drug could have a positive effect for the university.

“Anything that Vertex does bodes well for the university, because it is a spin-out from technology here at the university,” she said. “And the fact that Vertex Pharmaceuticals — which is in Cambridge, Mass. — decided to keep this unit here, I think really says something about the University of Iowa.”

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