In March 2016, a cure for hepatitis C in the form of highly effective direct-acting antiviral drugs, were listed on Australia’s Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), changing the lives of over 200,000 Australians living with the virus.
But for the 239,000 Australians living with hepatitis B, and 257 million globally, there’s no such cure. There’s a preventative vaccine and treatments to control the virus, but treatment is needed life long and liver cancer can still occur. Hepatitis B virus causes almost 40 per cent of liver cancers, which are the second leading cause of cancer-related death worldwide.
When Professor Peter Revill, a Royal Melbourne Hospital Senior Medical Scientist, set out to prepare a review of hepatitis B cure initiatives in 2015, it dawned on him that there was no global coordinated effort dedicated to finding a cure.
“That’s when I learnt about the HIV cure initiative that was started by the International AIDS Society (IAS) in 2010,” explains Professor Revill, “I thought that while we didn’t have an IAS, surely we could bring the right people together and form a global approach to hepatitis B cure.”
In 2016, Professor Revill, in collaboration with Professor Stephen Locarnini, a fellow Royal Melbourne Hospital medical virologist, and Professor Fabien Zoulim from Hospices Civils de Lyon and Inserm in France, penned an article for Nature Reviews Gastroenterology and Hepatology, which was a call to arms for a coordinated response.
“We had so much positive feedback, so we formed an organisation – the International Coalition to Eliminate Hepatitis B Virus (ICE-HBV) – in 2016,” says Professor Revill.
Since its inception, ICE HBV – a partnership between the Doherty Institute, ANRS and the convenors of the International Hepatitis B Meeting, which brings together researchers, clinicians, patient representatives, global health organisations and the pharmaceutical industry – has gained significant momentum. The most recent highlight for the Coalition has been the publication of the Global Scientific Strategy for an HBV Cure, published in The Lancet Gastroenterology and Hepatology and launched in April 2019, the first global roadmap for a hepatitis B cure.
“It has input from nearly 60 scientists from across the globe and is supported by the World Health Organization and the World Hepatitis Alliance. It’s going to drive increased calls for funding for research and provide focus for the field,” says Professor Revill.
Other initiatives of ICE HBV include a modelling study to model the cost benefit of cure, the establishment of a free of charge reagents repository to ensure standardised research, and a protocols database.