UT Chemical engineering grad student co-invents breakthrough hepatitis C drug

Freya Preimesberger

A UT graduate student has helped reduce hepatitis C treatment from 18 pills a day to just one.

Angela Wagner, a chemical engineering Ph.D. candidate and member of UT professor Nicholas Peppas’ research group, co-developed a new drug called Zepatier. The Food and Drug Administration recently approved Zepatier for the treatment of the most common type of chronic hepatitis C. Zepatier is more affordable than other hepatitis C medications, which can cost up to $94,500.

Hepatitis C is a viral blood-borne disease that inflames the liver. The majority of people with the disease develop chronic hepatitis C, which is associated with liver scarring and even cancer. An estimated 3.5 million people in the U.S. are infected with chronic hepatitis C, according to the National Institute of Health.

Previous treatments required patients to take large amounts of pills, which only worked 50 to 70 percent of the time, according to Wagner.

While employed at the pharmaceutical company Merck, Wagner and seven other researchers aimed to mitigate previous hepatitis C treatment problems. Fewer pills means patients are more likely to complete their courses of medicine.

“Prior treatments for hepatitis C often involve a high pill burden, so patients have to take up to 126 capsules a week, which often can lead to noncompliance,” Wagner said. “Our goal was to get it down to one pill a day.”

The FDA granted Zepatier Breakthrough Therapy designation, which expedites the development and review of new drugs. This designation accelerates clinical trials for pharmaceuticals that show promise for treating serious conditions. The time line to market is reduced by about half.

Merck priced the drug at $54,600 for a twelve-week course, which means it is much less expensive than other therapies for hepatitis C. Robert McMahon, Merck’s president, expects that the low price will help to increase patients’ access to treatment and reduce the burden of the disease, according to Merck’s press release.

“It’s really important that your work helps the patient because that’s what you’re striving to do every day,” Wagner said. “I think every scientist’s dream is to have their work mean something.”