Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) encompasses a histological spectrum ranging from simple steatosis to nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). NAFLD carries a higher risk of cardio-metabolic and liver-related complications, the latter being confined to NASH and demanding specific treatment. We assessed the efficacy of proposed treatments for NAFLD/NASH by reviewing reports of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) on online databases and national and international meeting abstracts through January 2010. Primary outcome measure was histological improvement; secondary outcome was biochemical improvement; improvement in radiological steatosis was also evaluated. Two reviewers extracted articles using predefined quality indicators, independently and in duplicate. Main outcomes of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) were pooled using random-effects or fixed-effects models. Publication bias was assessed by funnel plots. Forty-nine RCTs (30 in NASH) were included: 23 RCTs (22 in NASH, 1 in NAFLD) had post-treatment histology. Most RCTs were small and did not exceed 1-year duration. Weight loss, thiazolidinediones (especially pioglitazone), and antioxidants were most extensively evaluated. Weight loss was safe and dose-dependently improved histological disease activity in NASH, but more than 50% of patients failed to achieve target weight loss. Thiazolidinediones improved steatosis and inflammation but yielded significant weight gain. RCTs with antioxidants yielded conflicting results and were heterogeneous with respect to type and dose of drug, duration, implementation of lifestyle intervention. Among the other agents, pentoxifylline, telmisartan and L-carnitine improved liver histology in at least 1 RCT in NASH; polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) ameliorated biochemical and radiological markers of NAFLD. Other approaches yielded negative results.
Conclusion: Well-designed RCTs of adequate size and duration, with histological endpoints, are needed to assess long-term safety and efficacy of proposed treatments on patient-oriented clinical outcomes.