Screen High-Risk Individuals for NAFLD, Urges Guidance

Liam Davenport

February 16, 2023

People at high risk for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), such as those with type 2 diabetes or medically complicated obesity, should be screened for advanced fibrosis, says new guidance from the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases.

The guidance, published online in Hepatology, also reflects recent advances in the diagnosis and management of NAFLD, particularly noninvasive testing, lead author Mary E. Rinella, MD, University of Chicago Medicine, Illinois, told Medscape Medical News.

The "biggest change" from the previous guidance, published 5 years ago, is "that we are explicitly recommending that people in high-risk categories get screened in primary care," she said.

NAFLD is "a silent could easily have somebody develop cirrhosis," Rinella said. By identifying patients earlier, physicians would be able to "prevent or reduce the number of people turning up decompensated or at an advanced stage," she added.

The other message that Rinella wants clinicians to take away from the guidance is that "something can be done" for patients with NAFLD. "It's very common, and the often-cited reason why patients aren't referred to specialty care is that there's 'nothing that can be done.'"

Although there is no US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved drug for NAFLD, clinicians can still support their patients and suggest lifestyle changes, she added.

The guidelines also are designed to prepare the groundwork for novel drugs in the pipeline, as well as discuss those that are already available for conditions such as obesity and diabetes that benefit people with liver disease, Rinella said.

Screening and Evaluation

The guidance covers all aspects of NAFLD, including the latest developments in understanding of the epidemiology and natural history of the disease, and its molecular and cellular pathogenesis.

The guidance continues to recommend against population-based screening for NAFLD. In addition to the aforementioned screening for advanced fibrosis in high-risk individuals, it calls for a primary risk assessment with FIB-4 to be performed every 1 to 2 years in patients with pre-diabetes, type 2 diabetes, two or more metabolic risk factors, or imaging evidence of hepatic steatosis.

Patients with nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) cirrhosis require routine monitoring, as they are at the highest risk for liver-related outcomes, the guidance adds. Those with suspected NASH should be referred for evaluation by a specialist.

In assessments of liver fibrosis in patients, findings such as highly elevated liver stiffness, FIB-4, and enhanced liver fibrosis scores can predict an increased risk for hepatic decompensation and mortality, the authors write.

Intervention Guidance

Patients with NAFLD who are overweight or obese should be prescribed a reduced calorie diet in a multidisciplinary setting because weight loss "improves hepatic steatosis, NASH, and hepatic fibrosis in a dose-dependent manner," the guidance states.

Bariatric surgery should be considered in appropriate patients due to its effectiveness in resolving NAFLD and NASH in most patients without cirrhosis, the guidance says. However, in patients with well-compensated NASH cirrhosis, the type, safety, and efficacy of bariatric surgery is not established, so a "careful benefit-risk assessment by a multidisciplinary team of experts that includes a hepatologist" is needed, the authors note.

The guidance discusses alcohol consumption's role in the progression of fatty liver disease and recommends that intake be assessed on a regular basis in patients with NAFLD. Patients with clinically significant hepatic fibrosis should abstain completely, it adds. Abstinence, particularly for patients with moderate-to-heavy alcohol intake, may lower the risk of fibrosis progression and hepatic and extrahepatic malignancies, the authors note.

Additionally, drinking at least three cups of coffee, caffeinated or not, per day is "associated with less-advanced liver disease," they write.

The guidance also sets out key considerations for people with comorbid conditions. It states that patients with NAFLD should be screened for type 2 diabetes and that statins can be safely used for cardiovascular risk reduction "across the disease spectrum, including compensated cirrhosis."

While noting the lack of approved medications for NAFLD, the guidance states that some drugs prescribed for comorbidities also benefit patients with NASH. These are glucagon-like peptide 1 agonist semaglutide (Ozempic), pioglitazone (Actos), and vitamin E supplementation in select patients.

However, available data on these same drugs do not show an antifibrotic benefit and haven't been studied in patients with cirrhosis, the guidance states.

Additionally, metformin, ursodeoxycholic acid, dipeptidyl peptidase-4 inhibitors, silymarin, and statins do not offer meaningful histologic benefit and shouldn't be used as a treatment for NASH.

Help Against an "Evolving Epidemic"

The guidance is "timely and long awaited," Jamile Wakim-Fleming, MD, director of the Fatty Liver Disease Program at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, told Medscape Medical News. NAFLD is an "evolving epidemic," she added.

Numerous recent studies have "led to new modalities for diagnosis and therapy, and a better understanding" of the epidemiology and pathophysiology of NAFLD, she said. "More specifically, advancements in noninvasive testing, risk stratifications, and therapeutic modalities are now available and worth disseminating."

NAFLD's complexity and the lack of an FDA-approved therapy specifically targeting the liver means that managing the disease "requires expertise in multiple disciplines and knowledge of the latest developments," Wakim-Fleming noted.

"This guidance describes preventive and treatment strategies for the metabolic conditions associated with NAFLD and is very useful for physicians in different specialties who treat individuals with these conditions," she said.

No funding was declared. Rinella and Wakim-Fleming have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Hepatology. Published online February 3, 2023. Full text

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