A New Treatment for Hepatitis C
A native of Cuba, Luis Balart, M.D., arrived in New Orleans at the age of 12, and was raised in a medical family. Now a gastroenterologist and hepatologist, Balart primarily deals with patients suffering from serious liver damage and failure.
A fellowship early in his career made him realize that the city of New Orleans has especially high rates of liver diseases. “I noticed a lot of patients suffering from cirrhosis,” he says, referring to chronic liver damage from a variety of causes (including alcohol abuse) leading to scarring and liver failure.
By the time he began his practice, the viruses Hepatitis A and B had been recognized — but a third type, later deemed Hepatitis C, was an emerging mystery to researchers and doctors.
Balart explains that Type A is contagious and can be caught by consuming contaminated food; Type B is usually transmitted sexually in the United States. Vaccines now exist to prevent both.
To cure the burgeoning epidemic of Hepatitis C, which is contagious through infectious fluids and secretions — commonly through contaminated needles — it has been a nearly three-decade-long challenge, full of trial-and-error and experimental therapies, bureaucratic red tape and partnerships with pharmaceutical companies.
But Balart and his peers persevered and opened the door for more research and new medications for Hepatitis C, including Interferon in the late 80’s; their groundbreaking findings of the drug‘s success were published in the New England Journal of Medicine and spurred continuous research in the field.
At the time, he says, “we were only curing about 10 percent of patients,” he notes. But thanks to faith and perseverance and continued resources dedicated to curing this illness, three years ago, the first all-oral, direct-acting antiviral agents were approved; now roughly 95 percent of those who suffer from Hepatitis C can fully recover.
Balart is amazed by the progress that has been made in treatments for liver ailments, and says it is a joy to have helped accomplish wonderful end results after years of hard work and commitment.
Undergraduate: Louisiana State University
Medical School: Louisiana State University
Hometown: Guantanamo, Cuba