Current Drug Therapy

Diabetes management: Beyond hemoglobin A1c

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Release date: September 1, 2019
Expiration date: August 31, 2020
Estimated time of completion: 1 hour

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Diabetes management is a tailored affair. Patients live with the disease for decades and need increasingly complicated treatment regimens to attain glycemic goals. But other goals such as cardiovascular risk reduction, weight control, and avoidance of hypoglycemia also need consideration.


  • Some glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) receptor agonists have been shown to reduce cardiovascular risk, and liraglutide carries an indication for this use.
  • The sodium-glucose cotransporter 2 inhibitors empaglifozin and canaglifozin carry indications to prevent cardiovascular death in patients with diabetes with established cardiovascular disease.
  • Metformin, GLP-1 receptor agonists, and dipeptidyl peptidase 4 inhibitors are beneficial in terms of promoting weight loss—or at least not causing weight gain.
  • Disadvantages and adverse effects of various drugs must also be considered.



When scientists discovered the band of hemoglobin A1c during electrophoresis in the 1950s and 1960s and discerned it was elevated in patients with diabetes, little did they know the important role it would play in the diagnosis and treatment of diabetes in the decades to come.1–3 Despite some caveats, a hemoglobin A1c level of 6.5% or higher is diagnostic of diabetes across most populations, and hemoglobin A1c goals ranging from 6.5% to 7.5% have been set for different subsets of patients depending on comorbidities, complications, risk of hypoglycemia, life expectancy, disease duration, patient preferences, and available resources.4

Advantages of selected type 2 diabetes drugs

With a growing number of medications for diabetes—insulin in its various formulations and 11 other classes—hemoglobin A1c targets can now be tailored to fit individual patient profiles. Although helping patients attain their glycemic goals is paramount, other factors should be considered when prescribing or changing a drug treatment regimen, such as cardiovascular risk reduction, weight control, avoidance of hypoglycemia, and minimizing out-of-pocket drug costs (Table 1).


Patients with type 2 diabetes have a 2 to 3 times higher risk of clinical atherosclerotic disease, according to 20 years of surveillance data from the Framingham cohort.5

Mixed results with intensive treatment

Reducing cardiovascular risk remains an important goal in diabetes management, but unfortunately, data from the long-term clinical trials aimed at reducing macrovascular risk with intensive glycemic management have been conflicting.

The United Kingdom Prospective Diabetes Study (UKPDS),6 which enrolled more than 4,000 patients with newly diagnosed type 2 diabetes, did not initially show a statistically significant difference in the incidence of myocardial infarction with intensive control vs conventional control, although intensive treatment did reduce the incidence of microvascular disease. However, 10 years after the trial ended, the incidence was 15% lower in the intensive-treatment group than in the conventional-treatment group, and the difference was statistically significant.7

A 10-year follow-up analysis of the Veterans Affairs Diabetes Trial (VADT)8 showed that patients who had been randomly assigned to intensive glucose control for 5.6 years had 8.6 fewer major cardiovascular events per 1,000 person-years than those assigned to standard therapy, but no improvement in median overall survival. The hemoglobin A1c levels achieved during the trial were 6.9% and 8.4%, respectively.

In 2008, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)9 mandated that all new applications for diabetes drugs must include cardiovascular outcome studies. Therefore, we now have data on the cardiovascular benefits of two antihyperglycemic drug classes—incretins and sodium-glucose cotransporter 2 (SGLT2) inhibitors, making them attractive medications to target both cardiac and glucose concerns.


The incretin drugs comprise 2 classes, glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) receptor agonists and dipeptidyl peptidase 4 (DPP-4) inhibitors.

Liraglutide. The Liraglutide Effect and Action in Diabetes: Evaluation of Cardiovascular Outcome Results (LEADER) trial10 compared liraglutide (a GLP-1 receptor agonist) and placebo in 9,000 patients with diabetes who either had or were at high risk of cardiovascular disease. Patients in the liraglutide group had a lower risk of the primary composite end point of death from cardiovascular causes or the first episode of nonfatal (including silent) myocardial infarction or nonfatal stroke, and a lower risk of cardiovascular death, all-cause mortality, and microvascular events than those in the placebo group. The number of patients who would need to be treated to prevent 1 event in 3 years was 66 in the analysis of the primary outcome and 98 in the analysis of death from any cause.9

Lixisenatide. The Evaluation of Lixisenatide in Acute Coronary Syndrome (ELIXA) trial11 studied the effect of the once-daily GLP-1 receptor agonist lixisenatide on cardiovascular outcomes in 6,000 patients with type 2 diabetes with a recent coronary event. In contrast to LEADER, ELIXA did not show a cardiovascular benefit over placebo.

Exenatide. The Exenatide Study of Cardiovascular Event Lowering (EXSCEL)12 assessed another GLP-1 extended-release drug, exenatide, in 14,000 patients, 73% of whom had established cardiovascular disease. In those patients, the drug had a modest benefit in terms of first occurrence of any component of the composite outcome of death from cardiovascular causes, nonfatal myocardial infarction, or nonfatal stroke (3-component major adverse cardiac event [MACE] outcome) in a time-to-event analysis, but the results were not statistically significant. However, the drug did significantly reduce all-cause mortality.

Semaglutide, another GLP-1 receptor agonist recently approved by the FDA, also showed benefit in patients who had cardiovascular disease or were at high risk, with significant reduction in the primary composite end point of death from cardiovascular causes or the first occurrence of nonfatal myocardial infarction (including silent) or nonfatal stroke.13

Dulaglutide, a newer GLP-1 drug, was associated with significantly reduced major adverse cardiovascular events (a composite end point of cardiovascular death, nonfatal myocardial infarction, or nonfatal stroke) in about 9,900 patients with diabetes, with a median follow-up of more than 5 years. Only 31% of the patients in the trial had established cardiovascular disease.14

Comment. GLP-1 drugs as a class are a good option for patients with diabetes who require weight loss, and liraglutide is now FDA-approved for reduction of cardiovascular events in patients with type 2 diabetes with established cardiovascular disease. However, other factors should be considered when prescribing these drugs: they have adverse gastrointestinal effects, the cardiovascular benefit was not a class effect, they are relatively expensive, and they must be injected. Also, they should not be prescribed concurrently with a DPP-4 inhibitor because they target the same pathway.

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