Scientists in Vancouver have developed a new screening tool that reveals the genetic signature of an individual’s hepatitis C virus so that doctors can customize their treatment.

The tool, funded by Genome B.C. and devised by researchers at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, could save money and lives, said Anita Howe, scientific lead for the hepatitis C program.

“I would be able to tell you whether you are infected with a [virus] with resistant mutations,” she said. “By doing that, I would be able to know what type of drugs to prescribe to you to increase your success rate.”

Most drug regimens have success rates greater than 95 per cent, as long as the virus hasn’t developed any drug-resistant mutations. But hepatitis C is a rapidly mutating virus and sometimes those mutations confer resistance to certain drugs. Choosing a drug cocktail that will work on the virus is essential.

“If you are infected with an NS5A drug-resistant virus and I don’t know and I use this powerful, expensive NS5A-inhibitor drug to treat you, it is going to waste that treatment,” Dr. Howe said. NS5A drug resistance occurs naturally in 12 per cent 18 per cent of hepatitis C patients.

“If I had known that [your virus has] a resistant mutation to NS5A-inhibitor drugs, I would have prescribed you another type of drug,” Dr. Howe said.

The new screening tool would let doctors do that.

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