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Be Brave: Join a Hepatitis B Clinical Trial and Help Find a Cure

Photo courtesy of CDC.
Photo courtesy of CDC.

By Christine Kukka

One of the bravest things people living with hepatitis B can do is participate in a clinical trial  to help find the drug that will one day eradicate the virus that infects more than 240 million worldwide.

There are medical and financial advantages to participating in a trial. We may gain access to a drug that is more effective than what is currently available. We may get free lab tests and medications, and we know we have helped millions of others in the pursuit of a cure.

For example, if you participate in the Hepatitis B Research Network Adult Cohort Study, which is currently collecting data on how hepatitis B affects in 2,500 people in the U.S. and Canada over a five-year period, you helps scientists better understand this disease while getting free annual liver tests.

There are different types of clinical trials, for example some compare the effectiveness of a new drug against current treatments. When TAF, a new formulation of tenofovir, was in clinical trials, one group of patients received TAF and the other received the standard tenofovir drug. Researchers then compared viral loads (HBV DNA) and liver health from the two groups to see if TAF was as effective as tenofovir in lowering viral load and reducing the risk of liver damage.

Other drug trials compare the effectiveness of a new drug against no treatment. In this double-blind study, a control group receives no treatment (a placebo – or sugar pill) and the other group gets the experimental drug. Researchers don’t know until the end of the study which participants received the experimental drug in order to achieve an objective view of a drug’s effectiveness.

Clinical trials are also used to test the accuracy of new monitoring equipment or approaches, or they can help define what screening practices work best in individual immigrant communities.

Photo by Amanda Mills of CDC.
Photo by Amanda Mills of CDC.

They can also assess the effectiveness of herbal supplements and vitamin D in reducing liver damage or help identify when a pregnant woman should receive antivirals to lower her risk of infecting her newborn.

There are drawbacks to clinical trials that participants need to know. While pharmaceutical companies have spent years developing new drugs and testing them in lab animals before they reach human clinical trials, some drugs will not work.

A recent example of this is the Arrowhead Pharmaceutical’s ARC 520, 521 and AAT drugs, which were in clinical trials on 300 people in 17 countries. Last month, Arrowhead halted the trials after test animals that were receiving much higher doses of the drug died.

And, some trial participants risk getting the placebo instead of the experimental drug. In many of these cases, if the “experimental” drug is successful, those who received the placebo eventually gain access to the new drug. Also, these trials take commitment, including your time, travel and perseverance. But one day, these trials will help find a cure, but it can’t happen without the help of people living with hepatitis B.

How do we find a clinical trial? Most hepatitis B trials are managed by clinical researchers who work at universities, large hospitals or pharmaceutical companies. But you do not have to be a patient at one of these institutes to participate in a trial.

Step 1: Talk to your provider at your clinic, primary care office or liver treatment center and tell them you’re interested in participating in a trial. If you find one you think you’d qualify for, show them the information. Your provider can refer you to a trial even if he or she isn’t participating directly in the trial.

Step 2: Your provider can contact the research center on your behalf, submit an intake form for you, and transfer your patient records after you complete a HIPAA form. Your provider can still continue to care for you even if you join a trial.

Step 3: If you qualify, you may have to travel to the research center at least once. After that, your blood tests and any other lab results can be performed locally and sent to the researchers.

Step 4: Do your research before you participate. Ask questions and make sure you understand how the trial will affect your health. If there’s a chance you’ll get the placebo pill, ask what will happen and if you get access to the drug later on. Make sure you get the information in your primary language and that trial doctors are culturally-sensitive. Trust and knowledge is essential.

Below are some resources to help you. If you need more information, contact the foundation at 215-489-4900 (U.S.) or email info@hepb.org.

Where to find a clinical trial

  • Hepatitis B Foundation’s directory  of hepatitis B-related clinical trials: This resource lists hepatitis B-related clinical trials registered with the U.S. National Institutes of Health. These include hepatitis B-related treatment and liver cancer trials for adults and children in the U.S. and around the world. They also include coinfections, hepatitis D and trials investigating ways to prevent mother-to-children transmission of hepatitis B during childbirth. You can also email the foundation for more information at info@hepb.org.
  • The U.S. National Institutes of Health directory of clinical trials. This is a searchable directory of all NIH-approved clinical trials. You can search by condition and location.
  • Center for Information & Study on Clinical Research Participation: This offers a clinical trial database you can search, and the organization will also help you find clinical trials and email or mail you the information.  Call 877-MED HERO. Allow one to two weeks for response.

To watch a webinar about how to participate in a clinical trial, click here.

Arrowhead’s HBV Candidate Requires Further Dose Escalation

It should be noted while numerically the improvement in knockdown from 1mg/kg to 2mg/kg was only 12%, this is likely the result of the apparent high variability at the lower dose level with the increased tightness of the knockdown range at 2mg/kg indicating that the RNAi mechanism is starting to be solidly engaged with the expectation of a steepening dose response going forward.
It should be noted while numerically the improvement in knockdown from 1mg/kg to 2mg/kg was only 12%, this is likely the result of the apparent high variability at the lower dose level with the increased tightness of the knockdown range at 2mg/kg indicating that the RNAi mechanism is starting to be solidly engaged with the expectation of a steepening dose response going forward.

Sadly, we read that Phase 2a data presented by Arrowhead fell short of expectations for their ARC-520 drug to treat chronic hepatitis B. Hopefully dose escalation to 4mg/kg will result in both effective and safe results. However, there are others in the race for the cure, and may the most effective and safe drug soon result in a functional cure for chronic HBV.
~ hepbtalk


Harnessing the Power of RNAi Gene Silencing in Quest of a Cure for Chronic Hepatitis B, and the HBV KnockDown blog written by Dirk Haussecker, who believes it’s about time everyone got serious about a functional cure for hepatitis B.  Be sure to visit Dirk Haussecker’s blog !  

Today, we learned about some hard HBsAg knockdown numbers from the phase IIa Hong Kong study of ARC520 in chronically infected HBV patients.  The data relate to the first 2 cohorts in this ongoing dose escalation trial.  Accordingly, the mean HBsAg knockdown at nadir for the starting dose of 1mg/kg was 39% within a range of 22-57%(n=6) while it was 51% within a range of 46-59% for the 2mg/kg cohort (n=6).

ARC520 was given as a single dose to patients already stably on polymerase inhibitor entecavir.

While clearly missing the company’s own guidance of a 1 log reduction at 2mg/kg, the good safety profile-no SAEs at all in the study with all AEs rated to be unrelated to ARC520- in addition to the steepening dose-response curve following 2mg/kg means that ARC520 is far from being out of the HBV knockdown race.  Still, the stock market over-reacted, punishing ARWR stock with a percent decrease that matched the reported knockdowns.

Although even I ended up willing myself into believing that a 70-80% knockdown was possible following a single ARC520 dose of 2mg/kg, revisiting the chimp study which involved 2 doses of ARC520 (first one at 2mg/kg then one at 3mg/kg), it should be noted that at the time the 3mg/kg dose was administered, the HBsAg levels had only declined by 50%…about the same as achieved in the phase IIa study.  It is thus possible that Arrowhead gave the 2nd dose just as HBsAg levels were about to go up again, consistent with the already rebounding levels of HBV DNA and HBeAg in that study.

As a result, my expectations for the single 3mg/kg dose are now 70-75% based on the ~75-80% peak HBsAg knockdown in the chimp study following the 2mg/kg and 3mg/kg doses.  This also means that in order to reach that 1log knockdown goal the company had set for itself, 4mg/kg will most likely be needed.  Importantly, in the concurrent phase I dose-escalating study in healthy volunteers, this quite large amount of drug seemed to be well tolerated and the company is awaiting approval to adopt this dose in the Hong Kong study.

This projection is not much off the 90% knockdown achieved in the ARC-AAT program at 3mg/kg in non-human primates.  The improvement of this 2nd DPC-based candidate about to enter the clinic is possibly explained by progress in the potency of 2-molecule DPC delivery technology.  I add this as today many were confused about what the interim phase IIa results meant for the platform and the value of the company.

Overall, as long as 4mg/kg is an acceptable dose from a tox point-of-view, ARC520 is still in the game to be first-in-class in HBV knockdown.  It would have been much worse if say a 70% knockdown had been reported, but worrisome safety signals emerged.  On the other hand, the continued need for a dose escalation would seem to delay Arrowhead’s broad-based phase IIb study plans, meaning that the competition, in particular Tekmira’s TKM-HBV is coming closer.

At a market cap of ~$400M, the market has almost fully discounted the potential of ARC520 given the $150M+ in cash as well as the IND-ready, first-in-class ARC-AAT for which we can expect solid knockdowns in the clinic.  Interestingly, data for this candidate were selected for an oral presentation at AASLD while the ARC520 data will be in less prestigious poster form. Finally, should the single-molecule DPC which got me excited about the Arrowhead RNAi platform in the first place finally reach the clinic, it would necessitate an upward revision of the value of the company.
Disclosure: Long ARWR.  I sold most of my holdings at $11 and change given the underwhelming results and increasingly negative market reaction, but got back in below $6 when I considered the sell-off to be a gross over-reaction and imminent 3mg/kg data having the potential to surprise the market to the upside from now much lowered expectations.  Add to this ARC-AAT, the platform…

Participating in HBV Clinical Trials

Have you considered participating in hepatitis B clinical trial?   A clinical trial can be a great opportunity to take advantage of the latest advancements in HBV treatment and monitoring, typically without expense to the patient.  It can open doors and provide an opportunity to interact with liver specialists on the leading edge of treating HBV.  There are numerous clinical trials for hepatitis B offered all around the world, from adult to pediatric patient populations.

There are three testing phases that drugs go through before they are approved for use for by the FDA.  A fourth phase examines long-term use.  This is a rigorous process, costs hundreds of millions of dollars and takes 12-15 years before a drug is finally approved. Check out the animated Drug Discovery Time Line to get a better appreciation for the process.

A major advantage of participating in a clinical trial is that expensive treating medications, clinical monitoring, and lab work are typically provided without expense to the patient, and the patient is monitored throughout the process by experienced, participating liver specialists.

The next thing to consider is whether or not you are eligible for a particular trial.  There are various inclusion/exclusion criterion.  Some trials or studies are looking for patients that are treatment naïve, (patients who have not taken medications for HBV) while others are looking for patients that are treatment experienced, (patients who have taken particular medications for HBV) but may have failed on one treatment protocol, and might need “rescue therapy,” such as an antiviral to replace a previous antiviral where a resistance to the drug has occurred based on a viral mutation.  It varies with trial.

Other studies may be looking for candidates based on HBe status (positive or negative), degree of liver damage, or ALT or HBV DNA levels over a particular time period. You must first qualify before you consider participation in a trial or study, so be sure to check the qualifying criterion, and discuss with your doctor.

Naturally, each candidate will need to weigh the risks versus the benefits of receiving an experimental drug. Discuss the pros and cons with your doctor. Do you really need treatment for your HBV at this time? What are the possible short and long term side effects? Do you think you can manage them? You know your body best. What about the logistics?  Is there a need for frequent lab work?  Does it need to be done on site, or can blood be drawn at a local lab?  What happens when the trial is complete?  This is especially important when considering antivirals. Will you need to remain on the medication when the trial is complete?  Will you be financially responsible, and if so can you afford it?  Will participating in a trial exclude you from future trials?  What about resistance and cross resistance to future drugs? These are a few of the questions for which you need to think long and hard, and of course discuss them with your liver doctor and the participating specialist.

It also doesn’t hurt to ask other patients on HBV internet support groups.  You might well find someone with personal experience with the drug, keeping in mind that everyone responds somewhat uniquely to the same drug therapy. I have found these forums extremely helpful when considering a new drug.

The Hepatitis B Foundation is committed to maintaining monthly, updated clinical trial data available to friends living with HBV on our website.  We do much of the up-front work for you by sorting through the hundreds of trials available via clinicalTrials.gov, a registry of clinical trials.  We divide the data into unique treating situations that might benefit various patients, such as clinical trials for patients that live in the U.S. or internationally pediatrics, coinfected, candidates for liver transplantation, patients struggling with HBV related hepatocellular carcinoma, and HBV reactivation and lymphoma.  Most trials relate to the treatment of HBV, while some are observational studies, long term studies where patients are monitored over time.  Some relate back to treatment studies – durability of treatment or long term effects, while others study patients with HBV, and identifying factors that may cause the disease to activate or worsen, and are monitored via annual or bi-annual blood work and annual visits.  It varies with the trial.

So if you have HBV, consider your status. If you are a candidate for treatment, consider existing, approved treatments vs. participation in an HBV clinical trial. It’s up to you and your doctor to determine if a clinical trial is a good fit.