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Vol. 16. Issue 4.
Pages 538-547 (July - August 2017)
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Vol. 16. Issue 4.
Pages 538-547 (July - August 2017)
DOI: 10.5604/01.3001.0010.0284
Open Access
Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials of Pharmacologic Agents in Non-alcoholic Steatohepatitis
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Adnan Said
,**,***,
Corresponding author
axs@medicine.wisc.edu

Correspondence and reprint request:
, Ahmed Akhter*,**
* Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, William S Middleton VA Medical Center, Madison, WI, USA
** Department of Medicine, William S Middleton VA Medical Center, Madison, WI, USA
*** University of Wisconsin, School of Medicine and Public Health, William S Middleton VA Medical Center, Madison, WI, USA
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Tables (4)
Table 1. Review of various randomized controlled trials for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Table 2. Effect of metformin on biochemical and anthropometric variables in NAFLD.
Table 3. Effect of Thiazolidinediones on Biochemical and Anthropometric Variables in NAFLD.
Table 4. Effect of Vitamin E on Biochemical and Anthropometric Variables in NAFLD.
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Abstract
Background

Currently, there is no standardized treatment regimen for non-alcoholic steatohepatitis.

Aim

We performed a meta-analysis of high quality randomized controlled trials that evaluated treatment response to metformin, thiazolidinediones (TZDs), and vitamin E in adult patients with non-alcoholic steatohepatitis. Outcome measures were improvement in liver histology, biochemical, and anthropometric measures.

Material and methods

Nine trials met inclusion criteria (3 with TZD, 3 with Metformin, 2 with Vitamin E and 1 with both TZD and Vitamin E.).

Results

With metformin, weighted liver histologic scores for steatosis, ballooning, and fibrosis did not demonstrate significant improvement and lobular inflammation worsened significantly (weighted mean increase 0.21, 95% CI 0.11 to 0.31, P < 0.0001). The liver histology score including steatosis (OR 3.51, 95% CI 2.14 to 5.78) and lobular inflammation (OR 2.65, 95% CI 1.69 to 4.15) improved with TZDs. Hepatic fibrosis (OR 1.58, 95% CI 0.98 to 2.54) and ballooning scores (OR 1.84, 95% CI 0.94 to 3.58) did not demonstrate significant improvement. With Vitamin E, weighted liver histologic scores for steatosis (weighted mean decrease -0.60, 95% CI -0.85 to -0.35, P < 0.0001), lobular inflammation (weighted mean decrease -0.40, 95% CI -0.61 to -0.20, P = 0.0001) and ballooning (weighted mean decrease -0.30, 95% CI -0.54 to -0.07, P = 0.01) demonstrated significant improvement compared to placebo. Fibrosis did not significantly change.

Conclusion

In patients with NASH, TZDs and Vitamin E improve liver histologic scores but metformin does not. Insulin resistance also improves with both TZDs and metformin. Fibrosis does not improve with any of the agents.

Keywords:
NASH (Non Alcoholic Steatohepatitis)
NAFLD (Non Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease)
Rosiglitazone
Pioglitazone
Metformin
Vitamin E
Histology
Meta-analysis
Systematic review
Full Text
Introduction

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) encompasses a spectrum of disease ranging from steatosis to steatohepatitis and cirrhosis. It is considered the most common cause of elevated liver enzymes with an estimated twenty percent of the population affected worldwide.1-4 Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) refers to a subset of patients with NAFLD who demonstrate histological characteristics of hepatic steatosis, lobular inflammation and hepatocellular ballooning with progression to cirrho-sis estimated in up to fifteen percent of patients within a ten year period.1,2,5 In comparison to matched controls patients with either NAFLD or NASH have an increased mortality rate likely secondary to the prevalence of cardiovascular disease present in this population.1,2 Also, NASH cirrhosis has been associated with the development of hepatocellular carcinoma.7 Given the increasing incidence of NAFLD and the long-term consequences of this disease it is important to identify the risk factors and therapeutic measures, which can help curtail the progression of this aggressive illness.

The pathogenesis of NAFLD is not well understood, however, insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome have been associated with NAFLD.8 Also, lipid peroxidation and its’ byproducts have been found to be elevated in NASH patients and correlate directly to increasing necroinflammatory activity and fibrosis.9 Consequently, drugs that counteract these specific mechanisms have been used to facilitate the reduction of inflammation and fibrosis found in the liver of patients afflicted with NAFLD and NASH. Currently, there is no defined regimen for the treatment of NAFLD though many treatments have been purported.

Studies involving thiazolidinediones (TZDs), metformin, and antioxidants have been shown to improve biochemical parameters, glucose, and lipid metabolism.8,10-13 On the other hand, histological improvement with the same treatment measures has been difficult to interpret. A study by Bugianesi, et al. demonstrated metformin decreased the percentage of hepatic steatosis, necroinflammation, and fibrosis in non-diabetic patients, whereas a pilot study of metformin did not demonstrate a significant difference in any histopathological parameters when compared to placebo.14 Sanyal, et al. demonstrated improvement in lobular inflammation and hepatic steatosis but no significant improvement in fibrosis with pioglitazone or vitamin E.13 However, a placebo controlled trial of pioglitazone in non-diabetic patients’ demonstrated improvement in fibrosis over a twelve-month period.15 A recent meta-analysis by Singh, et al. aimed to compare the effectiveness of pharmacological interventions for NASH.16 However, their analysis excluded the use of metformin and included a Bayesian network analysis which compared agents that have never been tested head to head (Obeticholic acid from a single phase two trial and Pioglitazone). In addition, the pediatric population was also included by Singh, et al. which increases the heterogeneity of the studies used and makes analysis more difficult to compare.

Given the limited data and uncertainty regarding the superiority of any pharmacological agent in patients with NASH, we undertook meta-analysis of randomized place-bo controlled trials that examined metformin, TZDs such as pioglitazone and rosiglitazone, and vitamin E on adult patients with NASH.

Material and MethodsStudy selection

We selected studies using the following databases to Dec 31, 2014 (Figure 1): PubMed, Medline, clinicaltrials.gov, Cochrane central register of controlled trials. Key words used were the following: NASH (Non Alcoholic Steatohepatitis), NAFLD (Non Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease), Rosiglitazone, Pioglitazone, Metformin, Vitamin E, and histology. We included human studies without language restrictions. Bibliographies or original articles were also searched to identify other relevant articles.

Figure 1.

Flow Chart of Study Information.

(0.11MB).

Inclusion criteria for meta-analysis were adult randomized placebo controlled trials in patients with NASH and a minimum duration of therapy of at least six months with reportable histology outcomes pre and post-treatment. Patients with diabetes and non-diabetics were included. Although changes in biochemical variables (AST ALT, hyperglycemia) and anthropometric parameters were also analyzed when present, we did not include trials that did not include liver histology outcomes. We did not include trials in children and trials without controls were also excluded. Two investigators independently carried out literature search and reviewed studies for inclusion and exclusion criteria. Data were abstracted independently by two investigators.

Initially, there were thirty-six studies examining the effects of the above pharmacological interventions in patients with NALFD or NASH. As such, only nine total trials fit all inclusion criteria including three trials of TZDs, three of metformin, two of vitamin E and one with both TZD and Vitamin E were included in the analysis.

Outcome measures

Outcome measures were changes in liver histology including steatosis, ballooning, lobular inflammation, fibrosis and NASH activity index using standardized histological criteria for NASH reported in the included studies. Also, evaluation of biochemical and anthropometric measures were examined including alanine aminotransferase (ALT), homeostatic model assessment of insulin resistance (HOMA-IR), fasting blood sugar, Hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c), body mass index (BMI), body weight, total cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and triglycerides.

TZD- histology was expressed in dichotomous format (improvement versus not) with Odds ratio and Confidence intervals calculated for each histologic parameter versus placebo.

Metformin and Vitamin E - Histologic parameters were expressed as continuous variables using weighted mean differences and confidence intervals calculated for each histologic parameter versus placebo/controls. Biopsy specimens in the included studies were assessed using the following scoring systems: Brunt (3), Promrat (2), Kleiner (4).

Quality assessment

We assessed the methodological quality of the articles using The Cochrane Collaboration's Tool for Assessing Risk of Bias. We also used the Jadad 3 point scale for assessing the quality of each randomized trial.

Meta-analysis

A meta-analysis of data from randomized controlled trials was performed using Stats Direct Software. For liver histologic parameters, treatment effects for dichotomous data (improvement in liver histology Yes vs. No) were expressed by Odds ratio and 95% confidence intervals. For liver histologic parameters, treatment effects for continuous data (change in liver histology parameter scores) were expressed by weighted mean differences (and confidence interval) in each histologic parameter.

Random effects models with the Mantel-Haenszel method were used for combining data from trials. Heterogeneity of trials was assessed using the I2 measure of inconsistency and the Cochran Q statistic. Publication bias was assessed using funnel plot analysis and the Egger test.

Continuous variables

For continuous biochemical and anthropometric data weighted averages were estimated utilizing study means, sample size, and standard deviations. The Fisher exact method was used to combine the individual study P values and calculate an overall P value for comparison of each of these parameters.

ResultsMetformin

Three trials analyzing metformin therapy in patients with NASH were included in our meta-analysis (Table 1) with only Haukeland, et al.17 including a subset of diabetic patients. 81 patients were analyzed in the metformin group with over half (54%) attributable to the Haukeland, et al. study.17 Therapy lasted between six to twelve months. Of note, therapy regimens varied with Metformin dosed between 1,000 mg to 3,000 mg daily. Histological parameters including ballooning, fibrosis, steatosis and NAFLD activity score (NAS) did not significantly change with metformin therapy (Figure 2). Lobular inflammation significantly worsened after therapy (Figure 2) (weighted mean increase 0.21, 95% CI 0.11 to 0.31, P < 0.0001). Biochemical parameters including fasting blood sugar, HOMAIR, total cholesterol, ALT, body weight and BMI all significantly improved with metformin therapy as compared to the control group (Table 2). Triglyceride levels did not improve significantly with metformin. Of note, blood sugar, triglycerides, total cholesterol, ALT, and BMI all significantly improved within the control group during the trial; HOMAIR significantly worsened within the control group.

Table 1.

Review of various randomized controlled trials for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

  Total N*  Duration Study (months)      Diabetics included  Age of treatment group (s.d. / ränge)  Age of placebo group (s.d. / ränge)  Sex of treatment group (M:F)  Sex of placebo group (M:F)  Duration of follow up (months) 
Thiazolidinediones                     
Aithal, Gastroenterology 2008  74  12  Pioglitazone 30 mg/day  Randomized, Placebo Controlled  No  52 (28-71)  55 (27-73)  26:11  19:18  12 months (end of trial) 
Beifort, NEJM 2006  47  Pioglitazone 30 mg/day, increased after 2 months to 45 mg/day  Randomized, Placebo Controlled ( or 1  Yes Diabetes abnormal Glucose Tolerance Test)  51 ± 7  51 ± 10  14:12  7:14  6 months (end of trial) 
Sanyal, A/EJM2010  163  24  Pioglitazone 30 mg/day  Randomized, Placebo Controlled  No  47 (12.6)  45.4(11.2)  33:47  35:48  24 months 
Ratziu, Gastroenterology 2008  63  12  Rosiglitazone 4 mg/day for one month, then 8 mg /day  Randomized, Placebo Controlled  Yes (32%)  53.1 (11.5)  54.1 (10.4)  19:13  18:13  16 months (4 months after end of therapy) 
Metformin                     
Haukeland, Scan J Gastro 2009  44  Metformin started at 500 mg/day, maximum dose of 3,000 mg  Randomized Placebo Controlled Trial  Yes (27%)  44.3 (9.0)  49.9 (12.8)  16:4  16:8  6 months (end of treatment) 
Idilman, Alimentary Pharmacol Ther 2008  18  12  Metformin 850 mg twice daily  Randomized Controlled Trial  Unclear  47.9 (8.3)  45.8 (10.4)  21:27  9:16  12 
Shields, Therapeutic Adv. in Gastro 2009  19  12  Metformin 500 mg daily titrated to 1,000 mg daily  Randomized Placebo Controlled Trial  No  50.2 (9.1)  44.4(12)  8:1  5:5  12 
Vitamin E                     
Sanyal, NEJM 2010  167  24  Vitamin E 800 lU/day  Randomized, Placebo Controlled  No  46.6 (12.1)  45.4(11.2)  32:52  35:48  24 months 
Dufour, Clin Gastro Hepatol 2006  30  24  Vitamin E 800 lU/day + ursodiol 12-15 mg/kg/day  Randomized Placebo Controlled Trial  Yes  46 (14)  44 (14)  10:5  8:7  24 
Harri son, American J Gastro 2003  45  Vitamin E 1,000 IU/day + Vitamin C 1,000 mg/day  Randomized Placebo Controlled Trial  Yes  52.5  50.2  9:14  11:11 
N*: number of patients.
Figure 2.

Metformin and Histological changes in NAFLD.

(0.32MB).
Table 2.

Effect of metformin on biochemical and anthropometric variables in NAFLD.

Variable  Metformin (n = 129) Control (n = 103)  Weighted means pre-treatment  Weighted means post-treatment  P values within group  P value metformin vs. controls     
Blood Sugar  Metformin Control  98.43 99.72  87.93 99.07  < 0.0001 0.002  0.003     
HOMA-IR  Metformin Control  3.52 3.07  2.80 3.47  0.0004 0.0016  < 0.0001     
Triglycerides  Metformin Control  184.65 178.25  184.45 173.83  0.0004 0.0055  0.08     
Total Cholesterol  Metformin Control  208.55 206.95  189.40 187.55  0.0001 < 0.0001  0.0008     
ALT  Metformin Control  95.48 92.65  52.09 69.25  0.0001 <  0.0001  < 0.0001 
Body Weight (kg)  Metformin Control  85.31 84.41  82.78 88.62  < 0.0001 0.054  < 0.001     
BMI  Metformin Control  30.51 30.02  28.74 28.92  0.0001 <  0.0001  < 0.0001 
Thiazolidinediones

Four trials analyzing TZD (3 pioglitazone and 1 rosiglitazone) therapy in patients with NASH were included in our meta-analysis (Table 1) with Belfort, et al.18 and Ratziu, et al.19 including a subset of diabetic patients. 347 patients were analyzed in the TZD group with studies ranging from 47 to 163 patients. Therapy lasted between six to twenty four months. Of note, therapy regimens varied including Pioglitazone 30 mg daily with uptitration to 45 mg daily as well as Rosiglitazone up to 8 mg daily. Histological parameters including ballooning and fibrosis did not significantly change with TZD therapy (Figure 3). Steatosis and lobular inflammation significantly improved after therapy (Figure 3). Biochemical parameters including HbA1c, fasting blood sugar, HOMAIR, triglycerides, total cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein, and ALT all significantly improved with TZD therapy as compared to controls (Table 3). High-density lipoprotein, body weight, and BMI significantly worsened with TZD therapy as compared to controls. Of note, triglycerides, total cholesterol, and ALT all significantly improved within the control group. HbA1c and fasting blood sugar significantly worsened with the control group. High-density lipoprotein, body weight, and BMI did not significantly change in the control group.

Figure 3.

Thiazolidinediones and histological changes in NAFLD.

(0.25MB).
Table 3.

Effect of Thiazolidinediones on Biochemical and Anthropometric Variables in NAFLD.

Variable  TZD (n = 175) Controls (n = 172)  Weighted Means Pre-Treatment  Weighted Means Post-Treatment  P Values Within Group  P value TZD vs. Controls 
Hemoglobin A1c  TZD Control  5.77 5.86  5.55 5.87  < 0.0001 0.007  < 0.0001 
Blood Sugar  TZD Control  95.79 99.60  92.29 102.5  0.0007 0.0003  < 0.0001 
HOMA-IR  TZD Control  4.60 5.01  3.62 5.18    < 0.0001 
Triglycerides  TZD Control  142.2 166.7  129.4 162.9  0.05 < 0.0001  0.0006 
High-density lipoprotein  TZD Control  44.7 42.9  46.9 43.7  0.0007 0.08  0.005 
Total Cholesterol  TZD Control  192.3 199.53  186.1 193.1  0.04 0.03  0.0015 
ALT  TZD Control  71.96 75.87  35.12 50.55  < 0.0001 0.0001  < 0.0001 
Body Weight (kg)  TZD Control  90.90 93.15  94.25 91.91  < 0.0001 0.16  < 0.0001 
BMI  TZD Control  31.34 31.78  32.70 32.38  0.0001 0.28  0.0005 
HOMA-IR: Homeostatic model assessment of insulin resistance. ALT: Alanine aminotransferase. BMI: Body mass index.
Vitamin E

Three trials analyzing vitamin E therapy in patients with NASH were included in our meta-analysis (Table 1) with Harrison, et al.20 and Dufour, et al.21 including a subset of diabetic patients. 242 patients were analyzed in the Vitamin E group with studies ranging from 30 to 167 patients, with the predominant number of patients coming from the Sanyal, et al. study.13 Therapy lasted between six to twenty four months. Of note, therapy regimens varied with the use of Vitamin E 800 to 1000 IU/day. Histological parameters including fibrosis and NAS did not significantly change with vitamin E therapy (Figure 4). Ballooning, steatosis, and lobular inflammation significantly improved with vitamin E (Figure 4). Analysis of biochemical parameters within the vitamin E group was limited secondary to reported data, as such, only ALT and BMI changes were evaluated (Table 4). ALT significantly improved with vitamin E therapy as compared to the control group. BMI did not significantly change with vitamin E therapy as compared to the control group. Of note, ALT and BMI did significantly improve within the control group as well.

Figure 4.

Vitamin E and histological changes in NAFLD.

(0.3MB).
Table 4.

Effect of Vitamin E on Biochemical and Anthropometric Variables in NAFLD.

Variable  VIT E (n = 122) Controls (n = 120)  Weighted Means Pre-Treatment  Weighted Means Post-Treatment  P Values Within Group  P value VIT E vs. Controls 
ALT  VIT E Control  91.15 101.80  69.50 74.69  0.001 0.0001  < 0.0001 
BMI  VIT E Control  34.51 30.91  33.36 29.43  0.10 0.004  0.12 
ALT: Alanine aminotransferase. BMI: Body mass index.
Discussion

Our meta-analysis of high quality randomized controlled trials demonstrates that metformin, TZDs, and Vitamin E therapy do not significantly improve fibrosis. However, both TZDs and Vitamin E significantly improve steatosis and lobular inflammation with Vitamin E also significantly improving hepatocyte ballooning. All of the agents studied significantly improved ALT. Metformin and TZDs both showed a significant improvement in fasting blood sugar, HOMAIR and total cholesterol. Despite improvement in histology with TZD therapy BMI and body weight significantly worsened with treatment. Vitamin E therapy did not significantly alter BMI.

Lifestyle modification including an intense exercise program has shown that a > 7% weight loss is associated with significant improvement in steatosis, necrosis, and inflammation but not fibrosis.22 However, our meta-analysis reveals that histological response may not necessarily correlate with weight loss given the adverse effects of TZD therapy on body weight. The importance of weight loss has been challenged and a study examining an exercise program without dietary modification revealed liver fat content could decrease without a significant change in body weight.23,24 As such, our analysis provides further evidence that the pathophysiology involved in the development and progression of NASH may be much more complicated than simply the development of insulin resistance.

Our study also illustrates the limited data and number of RCTs that include histological outcomes in adult patients for the treatment of NASH. In addition, the conclusions arrived by the current studies are limited due to the number of patients involved with only the Sanyal, et al. study including more than one hundred patients. Also, pharmaceutical agents studied for efficacy in NAFLD are focused on liver histologic outcomes and do not use cardiovascular disease, malignancy, or mortality as end points although these are important in patients with NAFLD. Though adverse effects are not studied as primary end points and thus, are not easily evaluated in a meta-analysis, all agents studied have been associated with adverse effects which need to be further elucidated prior to implementation. The use of metformin has been associated with the development of lactic acidosis, TZDs may cause an increased incidence of congestive heart failure,25 and long-term vitamin E may increase risk of prostate cancer.26 It is unknown whether the changes or improvement seen in histology reverses after cessation of therapy or even translates to an improvement in liver related mortality. In addition, only five trials studied included a diabetic population with the largest trial including non-diabetic subjects. As such, evidenced based guidelines regarding therapy are challenging to construct for the current and future patient population given the increasing incidence of diabetes.

We found that insulin sensitizers and vitamin E play a major role in improving biochemical parameters and over the short term can have a beneficial effect on histologic markers of liver injury. However, it is unknown whether these improvements predict improved clinical outcomes. Future trials should include histological out-comes with longer duration of treatment and follow-up to determine whether or not our current proposed theories of the treatment of NASH are validated. In addition, there may be value in examining if a combination of insulin sensitizers and antioxidants provide a synergistic response on histology.

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Copyright © 2017. Fundación Clínica Médica Sur, A.C.
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