Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV), which is carried in the blood of infected people. According to various estimates, anywhere from 3 to 10 million people in the United States are carriers of the virus. One reason for this is because the virus wasn’t even diagnosed until the late 1980s. In fact, a majority of carriers are still unaware of their HCV status.
Hepatitis C is serious for some people, but not for others. Most people who get hepatitis C carry the virus for the rest of their lives. The majority will experience some liver damage but may not feel sick from the disease. Some people with liver damage, due to hepatitis C, may develop cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver and liver failure, which may take many years to develop.
But today there’s good news about Hep C: Thanks to a new generation of antiviral drugs, the cure rate for those with the virus is 95 percent. And progressive hospitals like UPMC, are taking the first steps in using this breakthrough to access a larger pool of donor hearts with the hope of narrowing the chronic and life-threatening shortage of organs that plagues transplantation.
“It’s a case of balancing risks,” says McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine affiliated faculty member Christopher Sciortino, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Surgical Director of the UPMC Advanced Heart Failure Center. “With the new drugs, the risk of dying from Hep C is very small, and you balance that against a heart patient’s risk of dying from heart disease, which can be much, much higher.”
“I think this is an important thing we’re doing,” Dr. Sciortino says. “That’s why UPMC has established a conservative research protocol that helps us do it in the safest way possible. I want to provide my patients with whatever advantage they can get as long as it’s safe.”
UPMC, where organ transplantation was greatly advanced in the 1980s by the pioneering research of Dr. Thomas E. Starzl, is one of a handful of hospitals with the resources and experience to perform this kind of transplant operation. Dr. Sciortino expects the research opportunities and the quality of the patient experience to take another giant step with the completion of the UPMC Heart and Transplant Hospital in 2020.
“As in any hospital, the people are what make this a special place,” he says. “The new facility will have a whole new care environment that will add on top of that.”