Clarifying the role of incretin-based therapies in the treatment of type 2 diabetes mellitus

Clin Ther. 2011 May;33(5):511-27. doi: 10.1016/j.clinthera.2011.04.015.


Background: Glucose homeostasis is the result of a complex interaction of a spectrum of hormones, including insulin, glucagon, amylin, and the incretins. Incretins are released by enteroendocrine cells in the intestine in response to a meal. Incretin dysfunction, along with a number of other defects, has been implicated in contributing to the pathogenesis of type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM). Therapies that restore incretin activity may reduce the pathophysiologic consequences of diabetes.

Objectives: The aim of this article was to review incretin physiology and studies of incretin therapy with glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor agonists and dipeptidyl peptidase-4 (DPP-4) inhibitors that were developed to specifically address the blunted incretin response in patients with T2DM.

Methods: Relevant English-language publications between 1995 and 2010 were identified through a search of the MEDLINE and EMBASE databases using the search terms incretin, type 2 diabetes mellitus, GLP-1, glucose-dependent insulinotropic polypeptide, and DPP-4. Review articles and preclinical and clinical trials that described relevant details of the epidemiology of diabetes and incretin physiology in health and in T2DM were selected for review and inclusion. Clinical trials were used to describe the clinical efficacy and safety of the GLP-1 receptor agonists and DPP-4 inhibitors in patients with T2DM. An occasional systematic review article and/or meta-analysis summarizing numerous clinical trials of a particular agent was selected for summarizing key data.

Results: Pharmacologic modulation of incretin pathophysiology by GLP-1 receptor agonists and DPP-4 inhibitors significantly improved glycemic control, benefited β-cell function, improved dyslipidemia, and lowered the risk of hypoglycemia compared with insulin and sulfonylureas. Unlike the DPP-4 inhibitors, GLP-1 receptor agonist therapy also produced weight loss, an important consideration given the close association among T2DM, overweight/obesity, and cardiovascular disease. The most common adverse events with GLP-1 receptor agonist therapy included nausea (28%-44%), vomiting (13%-17%), and diarrhea (11%-17%), which generally reduced in incidence and severity with continued therapy. The tolerability profile of the DPP-4 inhibitors was very good, with the incidence of adverse events similar to that of placebo. There was a suggestion of an increased incidence of nasopharyngitis versus placebo (5%-6% vs 3%-4%) with sitagliptin and urinary tract infection (6.8% vs 6.1% with placebo) and headache with saxagliptin (6.5% vs 5.9% with placebo).

Conclusion: The 2 incretin drug classes provided effective and consistent glycemic control with a good tolerability profile. These agents might also improve long-term β-cell function and either reduce body weight or be weight neutral. Their role in the therapeutic armamentarium of T2DM is evolving as their potential strengths and weaknesses become better defined.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2 / drug therapy*
  • Humans
  • Hypoglycemic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Incretins / therapeutic use*


  • Hypoglycemic Agents
  • Incretins