The Food and Drug Administration on Monday approvedSchering-Plough Corp.'s alpha interferon, called Intron-A, forthe treatment of chronic hepatitis C.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta estimates thateach year about 170,000 Americans become infected withhepatitis C, an infectious and sometimes fatal liver disease forwhich there is currently no cure. In half of the patients, thedisease progresses, causing cirrhosis, liver failure or evendeath. Hepatitis C has also been linked to cancer of the liver.

In clinical trials, about one-quarter of the patients treated withIntron-A showed an improvement lasting six months or moreafter therapy is finished.

Intron-A is now approved in 12 countries for the treatment ofhepatitis C. Schering-Plough charges $2,400 per treatmentcourse and estimates the worldwide market at $160 million.But Craig Shapiro of the CDC warns that because a diagnostictest for hepatitis C has been available for less than a year, it isextremely difficult to estimate the number of cases worldwide.

The Swiss pharmaceutical giant F. Hoffmann-La Roche iscurrently conducting U.S. clinical trials of its alpha-interferon,Roferon-A, for the treatment of hepatitis C.

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