Scientists have reported the successful eradication of hepatitis C in patients using two new antiviral drugs, raising hopes of a possible cure.

The study is one of many from a number of drug companies racing to develop an effective combination of oral, direct-acting antivirals that can be used to treat hepatitis C without interferon, which can have unpleasant side effects and means months of treatment.

Interferon-free combinations contain drugs that attack different steps in the hepatitis C viral life-cycle, so that viral replication can be interrupted and quickly reduced, allowing the body to rapidly eliminate hepatitis C from the liver and the blood.

The latest study offered a combination of two drugs – sofosbuvir and ledipasvir – to patients, with a 97% success rate.

More people in the US are living with — and dying from — hepatitis C than HIV. The lead investigator of the trial, Dr Eric Lawitz, said that the medicines were tested among patients with the most difficult strain of the virus to treat, type 1. Some already had cirrhosis of the liver, or had failed prior therapy with protease inhibitors, and were considered among the most challenging patients to cure.

In the study, which was funded by Gilead Sciences, the amount of hepatitis C virus in patients’ blood samples dropped sharply after only just a week of treatment with the combo drug. After a six month follow-up check, 97% of the patients had completely eliminated the virus from their blood.

Professor Margaret Hellard, of the Centre for Population Health at the Burnet Institute in Melbourne, Australia, commented: ‘The study was a Phase 2 study: while impressive, it is important to wait for the results of further trials.’