A potential cure for hepatitis B virus (HBV) infections has been found by Australian scientists. Australian patients are now the first in the world to have access to the treatment – a combination of an antiviral drug and an anti- cancer drug – which is in clinical trials in Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide.

Researchers at Melbourne's Walter and Eliza Hall Institute developed the treatment using birinapant, a drug developed by US biotech company TetraLogic Pharmaceuticals for treating cancer. Hepatitis B is a chronic viral disease which is currently incurable.

Marc Pellegrini, Greg Ebert and colleagues at the institute used their studies of the behaviour of hepatitis B virus in infected cells as a basis for the treatment. Their research is published today in two papers in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) (you can read them here and here).

Pellegrini said the treatment was successful in curing infections in preclinical models, leading to a human trial which began in December.

"We were 100 percent successful in curing HBV infection in hundreds of tests in preclinical models," Pellegrini said. "Birinapant enabled the destruction of hepatitis B-infected liver cells while leaving normal cells unharmed. Excitingly, when birinapant was administered in combination with current antiviral drug entecavir, the infection was cleared twice as fast compared with birinapant alone."

More than two billion people worldwide are infected with hepatitis B and about 400 million have a chronic HBV infection. The virus infects liver cells and can lead to complications including cirrhosis and liver cancer, resulting in more than 780,000 deaths a year.

Treatments that enable the host cell to rid itself of the virus, rather than targeting the virus itself, may prevent drug-resistant strains of HBV emerging, Pellegrini said.

"It is relatively easy for an organism to adapt to a drug, but it is very difficult to adapt to a change in the host cell," he said. "The virus relies on the survival mechanisms of the host, so if it can't exploit them, it dies. Such a monumental change in the virus' environment may be too big a hurdle for it to adapt to."

Pellegrini and colleagues will now investigate if the same strategy could be applied to other chronic infectious diseases. "Pathogens that infect and reside inside host cells, including viral diseases such as HIV, herpes simplex and dengue fever, and bacterial infections such as tuberculosis, could all potentially be cured in a similar way," he said.

This article was originally published by Business Insider.

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