An experimental treatment targeting hepatitis C was able to inhibit replication of the virus in the bloodstream of chimpanzees and could treat chronic infections in humans, a new study said Thursday.

The treatment works by inhibiting a molecule that helps hepatitis C virus replicate, according to scientists at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research (SFBR), who said the drug continued to work up to several months after it was used.

The treatment is already undergoing "human clinical trials and is currently undergoing Phase 1 clinical studies in healthy volunteers," the researchers said in a press release.

It is the first medication of its type to be tested on humans, according to the researchers, whose work was published in the December 3 issue of the journal Science Express.

The medication, dubbed SPC3649, was developed by the biopharmaceutical firm Santaris Pharma A/S, a Danish company.

It uses Santaris' proprietary nucleic acid called "locked nucleic acid," which captures the microRNA122 molecule that the hepatitis C virus (HCV) would otherwise use to replicate.

"Our collaboration with Santaris Pharma proved that the drug worked exceptionally well in treating HCV infections in chimpanzees," said SFBR's Robert Lanford, the lead author of the research.

The study also showed the technology could prove useful in the treatment of other diseases, including HIV, cancer and inflammatory diseases.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 170 million people worldwide are infected with hepatitis C, which is transmitted via blood and can progress over years into cirrhosis and liver cancer.

There are an estimated four million carriers of the virus in Europe, and between three and four million people in the United States are chronically infected, according to the WHO.

At present, the only hepatitis treatment approved by the US Food and Drug Administration is a cocktail of interferon and ribavirin, which is toxic, must be administered in a 48-week course and is effective in less than half of patients.

The researchers said SPC3649 could in the future be used to replace interferon in some treatments, and combined with interferon and ribavirin in a cocktail in other instances.

"This antiviral could be used alone to treat disease progression and there are indications that it can convert interferon non-responders to responders, so that non-responders to the current therapy could be treated with the combination of this drug with interferon," Lanford said.

In the test carried out on four HCV chronically infected chimpanzees, the two animals that received a higher dose of the new medication registered a 350 fold drop in the virus levels in their blood and liver.