BOSTON (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – Amid a plethora of quality research, several abstracts stood out at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases, Arun J. Sanyal, MD, said during the final debrief.

He focused first on nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which has lacked rigorous studies of disease evolution. Consequently, “current therapeutic development is based on small retrospective data sets with heterogenous populations,” Dr. Sanyal said. Therefore, he and his associates correlated serial biopsies with clinical data ( abstract 37 ). The results confirmed the waxing and waning nature of NAFLD and linked regressing or progressive fibrosis to several factors, including NAFLD Disease Activity score (NAS). NAFLD and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) are “not two different diseases, it’s the same disease,” Dr. Sanyal said. “Establishing disease activity as a driver of disease progression is highly relevant for development of noninvasive biomarkers, and also gives us a foundation for the development of clinical trials in this space.”

Several studies of NASH biomarkers yielded notable results at the meeting. In the largest study to date of circulating microRNAs as markers of NASH, (LB2) the miRNAs 34a, 122a, and 200a distinguished patients with and without NAS scores of at least 4 and at least stage 2 fibrosis with areas under the receiver operating characteristic curve (AUROC) between 0.59 and 0.80. “MicroRNAs appear promising, but likely need to be combined with additional biomarkers,” Dr. Sanyal said.

He also noted a study (abstract 40) in which metabolomics of liquid biopsies comprehensively evaluated NAFLD, including fibrosis stage, with AUROCs up to 0.95. Metabolomics “holds promise as a diagnostic tool that can be operationalized for point-of-care testing,” he said.

When it comes to NAFLD, hepatologists “often struggle with what to tell our patients about alcohol,” Dr. Sanyal said. To help clarify the issue, abstract 31 compared NAFLD patients who did or did not report habitually consuming up to two drinks a day in formal prospective questionnaires. After adjustment for baseline histology, abstainers and modest drinkers did not differ on any measure of histologic change, except that abstainers had a greater decrease in steatosis on follow-up biopsy. These findings negate several retrospective studies by suggesting that alcohol consumption does not positively affect the trajectory of NAFLD, Dr. Sanyal concluded.

Many new compounds for treating NASH are in early development, he noted. Among those further along the pipeline, the immunomodulator and CCR2/CCR5 inhibitor cenicriviroc (CVC) missed its primary endpoint (improved NAS and no worsening of fibrosis) but was associated with significantly improved fibrosis without worsening of NASH in the phase 2b CENTAUR study (LB1) .

“We also saw highly promising evidence for the effects of ASK1 [apoptosis signal regulating kinase] inhibition on hepatic fibrosis and disease activity in NASH,” Dr. Sanyal added. In a randomized phase II trial (LB3), the ASK1 inhibitor GS-4997 was associated with significant improvement in fibrosis without worsening of NASH when given in combination with simtuzumab, and also improved liver stiffness and magnetic resonance imaging–estimated proton density fat fraction (MRI-PDFF). “These very promising and exciting results need confirmation in more advanced, placebo-controlled trials,” Dr. Sanyal said.

Studies of alcohol use disorders of the liver confirmed that prednisolone has marginal benefits, that the benefits of steroids in general are offset by sepsis, and that pentoxifylline produced no mortality benefit, Dr. Sanyal noted. In studies of primary biliary cirrhosis, the farnesoid-X receptor agonist obeticholic acid (OCA), which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2016, was associated with significantly improved AST to Platelet Ratio Index (APRI) and liver stiffness measures by transient elastography at doses of 10 mg or titrated from 5 mg to 10 mg, with or without ursodeoxycholic acid ( abstract 209 ). In another study, patients with PBC who received norUDCA, a side chain–shortened version of UDCA, experienced decreases in serum ALP levels that were dose dependent and differed significantly from trends in the placebo group ( abstract 210 ).

In another study, the investigational ileal bile acid transporter inhibitor GSK2330672 was associated with significant reductions in itch, compared with placebo, and with lower serum bile acids among pruritic PBC patients ( abstract 205 ). Treatment was associated with diarrhea, but it was usually mild and transient.

Dr. Sanyal concluded by reviewing several studies of cirrhosis and hepatic encephalopathy. In a prospective randomized controlled trial ( abstract 247 ), lactulose with albumin significantly outperformed lactulose monotherapy for reversing hepatic encephalopathy, reducing hospital stays, and preventing mortality, especially sepsis-related death.

In another multicenter, 24-week, phase IV open-label study ( abstract 248 ), 25% of patients experienced breakthrough hepatic encephalopathy when treated with rifaximin monotherapy, compared with only 14% of patients who received both rifaximin and lactulose.

Finally, in a phase II trial ( abstract 2064 ), rifaximin immediate-release (40 mg) significantly outperformed placebo in terms of cirrhosis-related mortality, hospitalizations for cirrhosis, and breakthrough hepatic encephalopathy. The takeaways? “Use albumin with lactulose for acute hepatic encephalopathy,” Dr. Sanyal said. “Rifaximin with lactulose is better than rifaximin alone for secondary prophylaxis, and rifaximin immediate-release may decrease the need for hospitalization and the first bout of hepatic encephalopathy.”

The Liver Meeting next convenes October 20-24, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Sanyal disclosed ties to Genfit, NewCo, Akarna, Elsevier, UptoDate, Novartis, Pfizer, Lilly, Astra Zeneca, and a number of other companies.