Semaglutide Shows Promise in NASH Phase 2 Study

Kate Johnson

November 13, 2020

Almost 60% of patients with biopsy-confirmed nonalcoholic steatohepatitis and liver fibrosis showed resolution of NASH after treatment with semaglutide,according to a phase 2, double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial published in the New England Journal of Medicine and presented at the 2020 American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases (AASLD) meeting.

"This bodes well for further study of semaglutide and is supported further by marked improvements in weight, glycemic control and lipid profile," commented the study's senior author Philip N. Newsome, PhD, FRCPE, of the University of Birmingham (England), in an interview.

The highest daily dose (0.4 mg) of the glucagonlike peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor agonist, semaglutide, which is approved for the treatment of type 2 diabetes, led to levels of NASH resolution "which are higher than any previously demonstrated," noted Newsome. "This was also accompanied by improvement in noninvasive markers of liver fibrosis and also less fibrosis progression, compared to placebo."

"I think this represents an exciting advance and will, if confirmed in further studies, mark a step-change in our management of patients with NASH," he added.

The multicenter study, conducted at 143 sites in 16 countries, included 320 patients, aged 18-75 years, with or without type 2 diabetes, who had histologic evidence of NASH and stage 1-3 liver fibrosis.

They were randomized in a 3:3:3:1:1:1 ratio to receive once-daily subcutaneous semaglutide at a dose of 0.1, 0.2, or 0.4 mg, or placebo for 72 weeks.

The primary endpoint was resolution of NASH and no worsening of fibrosis, with a secondary endpoint being improvement of fibrosis by at least one stage without worsening of NASH.

The study found 40% of patients in the 0.1-mg semaglutide group, 36% in the 0.2-mg group, and 59% in the 0.4-mg group achieved NASH resolution with no worsening of fibrosis, compared with 17% of the placebo group (odds ratio, 6.87;P< .001 for the highest semaglutide dose). However, the treatment did not lead to significant between-group differences in the secondary endpoint, which occurred in 43% of patients on the highest semaglutide dose compared to 33% in the placebo group (OR, 1.42; P= .48).

Treatment with semaglutide also resulted in dose-dependent reductions in body weight, as well as in glycated hemoglobin levels. Bodyweight was reduced by a mean of 5% in the 0.1-mg semaglutide group, followed by mean reductions of 9% and 13% in the 0.2-mg and 0.4-mg groups respectively. This compared to a mean reduction of 1% in the placebo group.

Similarly, glycated hemoglobin levels among patients with type 2 diabetes dropped by 0.63, 1.07, and 1.15 percentage points in the 0.1-mg, 0.2-mg, and 0.4-mg semaglutide groups respectively, compared with a drop of 0.01 percentage point in the placebo group.

"The fact that the percentage of patients who had an improvement in fibrosis stage was not significantly higher with semaglutide than with placebo – despite a greater benefit with respect to NASH resolution and dose-dependent weight loss – was unexpected, given that previous studies have suggested that resolution of NASH and improvements in activity scores for the components of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease are associated with regression of fibrosis," wrote the authors. "However, the temporal association among NASH resolution, weight loss, and improvement in fibrosis stage is not fully understood. It is possible that the current trial was not of sufficient duration for improvements in fibrosis stage to become apparent."

The authors also noted that the safety profile of semaglutide was "consistent with that observed in patients with type 2 diabetes in other trials and with the known effects of GLP-1 receptor agonists," with gastrointestinal disorders being the most commonly reported.

Nausea, constipation, and vomiting were reported more often in the 0.4-mg semaglutide group than in the placebo group (nausea, 42% vs. 11%; constipation, 22% vs. 12%; and vomiting, 15% vs. 2%).

The overall incidence of benign, malignant, or unspecified neoplasms was 15% in the treatment groups versus 8% in the placebo group.

Rowen K. Zetterman, MD, who was not involved with the study, noted that "treatment of NASH is currently limited, and no therapies have yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration."

The findings are "important but not yet exciting," added Zetterman, who is professor emeritus of internal medicine and associate vice chancellor for strategic planning for the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha.

"Though reversal of liver fibrosis was not noted, the resolution of hepatic inflammation and liver cell injury by semaglutide suggests it may be slowing disease progression," said Zetterman, who also serves on the editorial advisory board of Internal Medicine News. This "warrants additional studies where longer treatment with semaglutide may prove reversal of fibrosis and/or prevention of progression to cirrhosis."

The study was sponsored by Novo Nordisk. Newsome reported disclosures related to Novo Nordisk during the conduct of the study, and to Boehringer Ingelheim, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Echosens, Gilead, Pfizer, Pharmaxis, and Poxel. Several of the other study authors reported receiving fees and grants from various pharmaceutical companies, including Novo Nordisk One author reported pending patents for the use of semaglutide. Zetterman had no relevant disclosures.

SOURCE: Newsome PN et al. N Engl J Med. 2020 Nov 13.doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa2028395.

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