Conference Coverage

Ezetimibe-statin combo lowers liver fat in open-label trial



Ezetimibe given in combination with rosuvastatin has a beneficial effect on liver fat in people with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), according results of a randomized, active-controlled trial.

The findings, which come from the investigator-initiated ESSENTIAL trial, are likely to add to the debate over whether or not the lipid-lowering combination could be of benefit beyond its effects in the blood.

Obese man with fatty liver, 3D illustration and photomicrograph of liver steatosis. Dr_Microbe/Getty Images

“We used magnetic resonance imaging-derived proton density fat fraction [MRI-PDFF], which is highly reliable method of assessing hepatic steatosis,” Youngjoon Kim, PhD, one of the study investigators, said at the annual meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes in Barcelona.

“It enables accurate, repeatable and reproducible quantitative assessment of liver fat over the entire liver,” observed Dr. Kim, who works at Severance Hospital, part of Yonsei University in Seoul.

He reported that there was a significant 5.8% decrease in liver fat following 24 weeks’ treatment with ezetimibe and rosuvastatin comparing baseline with end of treatment MRI-PDFF values; a drop that was significant (18.2% vs. 12.3%, P < .001).

Rosuvastatin monotherapy also reduced liver fat from 15.0% at baseline to 12.4% after 24 weeks; this drop of 2.6% was also significant (P = .003).

This gave an absolute mean difference between the two study arms of 3.2% (P = .02).

Rationale for the ESSENTIAL study

Dr. Kim observed during his presentation that NAFLD is burgeoning problem around the world. Ezetimibe plus rosuvastatin was a combination treatment already used widely in clinical practice, and there had been some suggestion that ezetimibe might have an effect on liver fat.

“Although the effect of ezetimibe on hepatic steatosis is still controversial, ezetimibe has been reported to reduce visceral fat and improve insulin resistance in several studies” Dr. Kim said.

“Recently, our group reported that the use of ezetimibe affects autophagy of hepatocytes and the NLRP3 [NOD-like receptors containing pyrin domain 3] inflammasome,” he said.

Moreover, he added, “ezetimibe improved NASH [nonalcoholic steatohepatitis] in an animal model. However, the effects of ezetimibe have not been clearly shown in a human study.”

Dr. Kim also acknowledged a prior randomized control trial that had looked at the role of ezetimibe in 50 patients with NASH, but had not shown a benefit for the drug over placebo in terms of liver fat reduction.

Addressing the Hawthorne effect

“The size of the effect by that might actually be more modest due to the Hawthorne effect,” said session chair Onno Holleboom, MD, PhD, of Amsterdam UMC in the Netherlands.

“What we observe in the large clinical trials is an enormous Hawthorne effect – participating in a NAFLD trial makes people live healthier because they have health checks,” he said.

“That’s a major problem for showing efficacy for the intervention arm,” he added, but of course the open design meant that the trial only had intervention arms; “there was no placebo arm.”

A randomized, active-controlled, clinician-initiated trial

The main objective of the ESSENTIAL trial was therefore to take another look at the potential effect of ezetimibe on hepatic steatosis and doing so in the setting of statin therapy.

In all, 70 patients with NAFLD that had been confirmed via ultrasound were recruited into the prospective, single center, phase 4 trial. Participants were randomized 1:1 to received either ezetimibe 10 mg plus rosuvastatin 5 mg daily or rosuvastatin 5 mg for up to 24 weeks.

Change in liver fat was measured via MRI-PDFF, taking the average values in each of nine liver segments. Magnetic resonance elastography (MRE) was also used to measure liver fibrosis, although results did not show any differences either from baseline to end of treatment values in either group or when the two treatment groups were compared.

Dr. Kim reported that both treatment with the ezetimibe-rosuvastatin combination and rosuvastatin monotherapy reduced parameters that might be associated with a negative outcome in NAFLD, such as body mass index and waist circumference, triglycerides, and LDL cholesterol. There was also a reduction in C-reactive protein levels in the blood, and interleulin-18. There was no change in liver enzymes.

Several subgroup analyses were performed indicating that “individuals with higher BMI, type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, and severe liver fibrosis were likely to be good responders to ezetimibe treatment,” Dr. Kim said.

“These data indicate that ezetimibe plus rosuvastatin is a safe and effective therapeutic option to treat patients with NAFLD and dyslipidemia,” he concluded.

The results of the ESSENTIAL study have been published in BMC Medicine.

The study was funded by the Yuhan Corporation. Dr. Kim had no conflicts of interest to report. Dr. Holleboom was not involved in the study and had no conflicts of interest.

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