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An advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration Thursday recommended approval for a new combination therapy marketed by Swiss drugmaker

Roche

to treat hepatitis C.

The Antiviral Drugs Advisory Committee gave a unanimous thumbs-up to Pegasys, a longer-acting form of the immune-boosting drug interferon, used in combination with the antiviral medicine ribavarin. Roche manufactures both drugs. The panel's recommendation will now be passed along to the full FDA for a final decision. The FDA usually, although not always, agrees with a panel's recommendation.

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Last month, the FDA approved Pegasys as a stand-alone treatment for hepatitis C. But most patients suffering from the liver disease are treated with the combination therapy.

Roche's new Pegasys combination therapy for hepatitis C will compete with a similar combination treatment marketed by

Schering-Plough

(SGP)

, which generated $1.4 billion in sales last year.