Biological role, clinical significance, and therapeutic possibilities of the recently discovered metabolic hormone fibroblastic growth factor 21

Eur J Endocrinol. 2012 Sep;167(3):301-9. doi: 10.1530/EJE-12-0357. Epub 2012 Jun 27.


Fibroblast growth factor 21 (FGF21), a 181 amino acid circulating protein, is a member of the FGF superfamily, with relevant metabolic actions. It acts through the interaction with specific FGF receptors and a cofactor called β-Klotho, whose expression is predominantly detected in metabolically active organs. FGF21 stimulates glucose uptake in adipocytes via the induction of glucose transporter-1. This action is additive and independent of insulin. β-Cell function and survival are preserved, and glucagon secretion is reduced by this protein, thus decreasing hepatic glucose production and improving insulin sensitivity. Lipid profile has been shown to be improved by FGF21 in several animal models. FGF21 increases energy expenditure in rodents and induces weight loss in diabetic nonhuman primates. It also exerts favorable effects on hepatic steatosis and reduces tissue lipid content in rodents. Adaptive metabolic responses to fasting, including stimulation of ketogenesis and fatty acid oxidation, seem to be partially mediated by FGF21. In humans, serum FGF21 concentrations have been found elevated in insulin-resistant states, such as impaired glucose tolerance and type 2 diabetes. FGF21 levels are correlated with hepatic insulin resistance index, fasting blood glucose, HbA1c, and blood glucose after an oral glucose tolerance test. A relationship between FGF21 levels and long-term diabetic complications, such as nephropathy and carotid atheromatosis, has been reported. FGF21 levels decreased in diabetic patients after starting therapy with insulin or oral agents. Increased FGF21 serum levels have also been found to be associated with obesity. In children, it is correlated with BMI and leptin levels, whereas in adults, FGF21 levels are mainly related to several components of the metabolic syndrome. Serum FGF21 levels have been found to be elevated in patients with ischemic heart disease. In patients with renal disease, FGF21 levels exhibited a progressive increase as renal function deteriorates. Circulating FGF21 levels seem to be related to insulin resistance and inflammation in dialysis patients. In summary, FGF21 is a recently identified hormone with antihyperglycemic, antihyperlipidemic, and thermogenic properties. Direct or indirect potentiation of its effects might be a potential therapeutic target in insulin-resistant states.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adipocytes / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Blood Glucose / metabolism
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2 / blood
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2 / drug therapy
  • Fibroblast Growth Factors / blood
  • Fibroblast Growth Factors / physiology*
  • Fibroblast Growth Factors / therapeutic use*
  • Glucose Intolerance / blood
  • Glucose Intolerance / drug therapy
  • Glucose Transporter Type 1 / biosynthesis
  • Glucose Transporter Type 1 / blood
  • Glucose Transporter Type 1 / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hyperglycemia / blood
  • Hyperglycemia / prevention & control
  • Hyperlipidemias / prevention & control
  • Metabolic Syndrome / blood
  • Metabolic Syndrome / drug therapy
  • Obesity / blood
  • Obesity / drug therapy


  • Blood Glucose
  • Glucose Transporter Type 1
  • fibroblast growth factor 21
  • Fibroblast Growth Factors