Diabetes drugs for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease: A systematic review

Ian Blazina, Shelley Selph

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


Background: Fatty liver is associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes, hyperlipidemia, hypertension, and metabolic syndrome. While there are no approved drugs for the treatment of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) or nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, strategies to ameliorate fatty liver often target these related diseases. We sought to determine if any medications approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to treat diabetes are helpful in reducing weight and improving steatohepatitis in patients with NAFLD. Methods: We conducted a systematic review of published and unpublished studies evaluating the comparative effectiveness and harms of diabetes medications for the treatment of NAFLD. We searched MEDLINE, EMBASE, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, and the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials through 3rd quarter, 2019 using terms for included drugs and indications. Results: We screened 1591 citations and included 18 trials of diabetes drugs to treat NAFLD. Studies of metformin found no difference from placebo in steatosis, fibrosis, NAFLD activity score, or resolution of NASH. While weight and glucose control were improved with metformin, it did not substantially impact liver disease. Studies of pioglitazone in NASH patients found benefits in liver function, liver fat, and NASH resolution, though significant increases in weight may be cause for concern. Evidence for other thiazolinediones was more limited and had somewhat mixed results, but findings were generally consistent with those for pioglitazone: liver fat and function and glucose measures improved, but weight also increased. We found some evidence that liraglutide improves liver fat, liver function, and HbA1c and is effective at resolving NASH and reducing weight. Exenatide performed less well but also resulted in significant reductions in liver fat and weight. Conclusions: Consistent with existing clinical practice guidelines, which recommend lifestyle intervention and treatment for comorbidities related to fatty liver disease as first-line treatment, trial evidence supports the efficacy of some diabetes drugs (especially pioglitazone) in patients with NAFLD or NASH, though weight gain with some diabetes drugs may warrant caution. Larger trials are needed to better characterize the efficacy and harms of diabetes pharmacotherapy in these patients.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number295
JournalSystematic Reviews
Issue number1
StatePublished - Nov 29 2019


  • Diabetes
  • Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Pharmacotherapy
  • Systematic review

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)


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