Non-alcohol related fatty liver disease (commonly called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)) is liver steatosis in the absence of significant alcohol consumption, use of hepatotoxic medication, or other disorders affecting the liver such as hepatitis C virus infection, Wilson's disease, and starvation. NAFLD embraces the full spectrum of disease from pure steatosis (i.e. uncomplicated fatty liver) to non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), via NASH-cirrhosis to cirrhosis. The optimal pharmacological treatment for people with NAFLD remains uncertain.
To assess the comparative benefits and harms of different pharmacological interventions in the treatment of NAFLD through a network meta-analysis and to generate rankings of the available pharmacological treatments according to their safety and efficacy. However, it was not possible to assess whether the potential effect modifiers were similar across different comparisons. Therefore, we did not perform the network meta-analysis, and instead, assessed the comparative benefits and harms of different interventions using standard Cochrane methodology.
We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, Embase, Science Citation Index Expanded, the World Health Organization International Clinical Trials Registry Platform, and ClinicalTrials.com to August 2016.
We included only randomised clinical trials (irrespective of language, blinding, or publication status) in participants with NAFLD. We excluded trials which included participants who had previously undergone liver transplantation. We considered any of the various pharmacological interventions compared with each other or with placebo or no intervention.
We calculated the odds ratio (OR) and rate ratio with 95% confidence intervals (CI) using both fixed-effect and random-effects models based on an available participant analysis with Review Manager. We assessed risk of bias according to the Cochrane risk of bias tool, controlled risk of random errors with Trial Sequential Analysis, and assessed the quality of the evidence using GRADE.
We identified 77 trials including 6287 participants that met the inclusion criteria of this review. Forty-one trials (3829 participants) provided information for one or more outcomes. Only one trial was at low risk of bias in all domains. All other trials were at high risk of bias in one or more domains. Overall, all the evidence was very low quality. Thirty-five trials included only participants with non-alcohol related steatohepatitis (NASH) (based on biopsy confirmation). Five trials included only participants with diabetes mellitus; 14 trials included only participants without diabetes mellitus. The follow-up in the trials ranged from one month to 24 months.We present here only the comparisons of active intervention versus no intervention in which two or more trials reported at least one of the following outcomes: mortality at maximal follow-up, serious adverse events, and health-related quality of life, the outcomes that determine whether a treatment should be used. Antioxidants versus no interventionThere was no mortality in either group (87 participants; 1 trial; very low quality evidence). None of the participants developed serious adverse events in the trial which reported the proportion of people with serious adverse events (87 participants; 1 trial; very low quality evidence). There was no evidence of difference in the number of serious adverse events between antioxidants and no intervention (rate ratio 0.89, 95% CI 0.36 to 2.19; 254 participants; 2 trials; very low quality evidence). None of the trials reported health-related quality of life. Bile acids versus no interventionThere was no evidence of difference in mortality at maximal follow-up (OR 5.11, 95% CI 0.24 to 107.34; 659 participants; 4 trials; very low quality evidence), proportion of people with serious adverse events (OR 1.56, 95% CI 0.84 to 2.88; 404 participants; 3 trials; very low quality evidence), or the number of serious adverse events (rate ratio 1.01, 95% CI 0.66 to 1.54; 404 participants; 3 trials; very low quality evidence) between bile acids and no intervention. None of the trials reported health-related quality of life. Thiazolidinediones versus no interventionThere was no mortality in either group (74 participants; 1 trial; very low quality evidence). None of the participants developed serious adverse events in the two trials which reported the proportion of people with serious adverse events (194 participants; 2 trials; very low quality evidence). There was no evidence of difference in the number of serious adverse events between thiazolidinediones and no intervention (rate ratio 0.25, 95% CI 0.06 to 1.05; 357 participants; 3 trials; very low quality evidence). None of the trials reported health-related quality of life. Source of fundingTwenty-six trials were partially- or fully-funded by pharmaceutical companies that would benefit, based on the results of the trial. Twelve trials did not receive any additional funding or were funded by parties with no vested interest in the results. The source of funding was not provided in 39 trials.
Due to the very low quality evidence, we are very uncertain about the effectiveness of pharmacological treatments for people with NAFLD including those with steatohepatitis. Further well-designed randomised clinical trials with sufficiently large sample sizes are necessary.