Medicine for liver inflammation looks promising

Prof. Sven Francque (UAntwerp)’s team achieves breakthrough in research into liver disease

Worldwide 1 in 40 people have a serious liver disease caused by diabetes or obesity. However, the phenomenon is still relatively unknown and medical help often arrives too late. Professor Sven Francque and his team want to change that: ‘There is a drug in the pipeline.’

When you think of liver problems, you probably think of alcohol abuse. However, inflammation of the liver is also common in people with obesity or diabetes: about 2.5% of the world's population suffers from the condition called 'NASH'(nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, i.e. an advanced form of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease).

‘If too much fat accumulates in the liver, it can lead to chronic inflammation and scarring’, says Prof Francque, who has been studying the condition for fifteen years. ‘As a patient, it doesn't bother you much at first. At most, you have some vague pain in the liver area or you feel more tired.’

Quick diagnosis required

But the long-term consequences of this disease are serious: inflammation of the liver causes liver cells to die and the liver to will then shrink – this is called cirrhosis. For some patients, liver transplantation or liver cancer are not far off.

That is why Prof. Francque wants to bring attention to the disease. ‘It is very important that the disease is detected more quickly. A quick diagnosis can limit the damage. People with diabetes must undergo regular screenings. It would be a good thing if screening for NASH was added.’ In consultation with patient associations, Francque and his colleagues have already produced a 'patient guideline'. It contains the most important scientifically based information on the disease.

Icing on the cake

A cure for NASH does not exist just yet. But there is hope: a potential drug, which Prof. Francque co-developed with his team, is now entering a third, final phase. ‘In our research, over six months we compared two groups of patients suffering from NASH. One group received the drug, the other a placebo. In the group that was given the drug, we noticed two improvements: firstly, they had less inflammation, and secondly, the scars that they had – as a result of that inflammation – on their liver were reduced.’

Another benefit: the patients' blood sugar levels improved when they took the medicine. The research now has to go through phase 3, but the results look promising. The results of their research appeared in the scientific journal New England Journal of Medicine.