conference reporter

Therapies on the Horizon for Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis

by Rohit Loomba, MD, MHSc


Agents in development to treat nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) are beginning to be tested in phase 3 clinical trials, suggesting that treatments to reverse NASH may be available in the future. Rohit Loomba, MD, MHSc, reviews the relevant data from The Liver Meeting® 2021.

Following these proceedings, featured expert Rohit Loomba, MD, MHSc, was interviewed by Conference Reporter Editor-in-Chief Tom Iarocci, MD. Dr Loomba’s clinical perspectives are presented here.  

Rohit Loomba, MD, MHSc

Director, NAFLD Research Center
Professor of Medicine, Director of Hepatology, and Vice Chief
Division of Gastroenterology
Adjunct Professor, Division of Epidemiology
University of California, San Diego
San Diego, CA

“ . . . several promising agents for NASH are in development, and the respective clinical trials increasingly utilize noninvasive tests to measure improvements. We will need to see sustained efficacy in these clinical trials, so long-term data will be important.”

Rohit Loomba, MD, MHSc

Several potential therapies for NASH are being investigated in phase 3 clinical trials and were discussed during this year’s The Liver Meeting, including resmetirom and aramchol, in addition to the glucagon-like peptide-1 analogue semaglutide (NCT04822181). Resmetirom is an orally active thyroid hormone beta receptor agonist designed to increase hepatic fat metabolism and reduce lipotoxicity (abstract LP19). Aramchol is designed to downregulate the fatty acid synthetic enzyme stearoyl-CoA desaturase 1 in hepatocytes (abstract LP23). 

Fibroblast growth factors (FGFs) are known for their potential effects on the repair and regeneration of tissue, and FGF analogues that are in development for the treatment of NASH include FGF19 molecules (abstract 8) and several FGF21 molecules (abstract LO5). In abstract 139, we presented data on BIO89-100, a glycoPEGylated FGF21 analogue. We also discussed TERN-101, a farnesoid X receptor (FXR) analogue, in abstract 143; the FXR is a crucial molecular actor in hepatic homeostasis. Additionally, information on TVB-2640, an oral, small-molecule fatty acid synthase (FASN) inhibitor, was presented at the meeting in abstract 141.

The use of noninvasive tests to measure improvements in liver disease is a feature of many of the trials in progress. With regard to the FGF21 analogue BIO89-100 (abstract 139), we had previously shown that this treatment leads to reductions in magnetic resonance imaging–derived proton density fat fraction and alanine transaminase (ALT). In presenting this abstract, I noted that there was a reduction in spleen volume, even in those with early disease. We typically see splenomegaly with cirrhosis, but, in this trial, we noticed that the spleen volume decreased as the liver volume decreased with the declining fat fraction. It is possible that when the liver fat increases with fatty liver disease, blood flow to the liver also increases to maintain that excess liver mass. And so, perfusion might be increasing in the liver at a subclinical level (ie, without portal hypertension). Likewise, there may be a subclinical increase in the spleen volume to maintain the liver perfusion that resolves with the resolving liver disease. We might be able to replicate these findings in studies of other therapies, so there will likely be more to come on that in the next year. 

FXR agonists hold promise for NASH, and we presented data on TERN-101, a synthetic nonsteroidal FXR agonist, where 5-, 10-, and 15-mg doses were evaluated in a phase 2a study (abstract 143). We reported an improvement in ALT and a numerical improvement in aspartate transaminase with the drug vs placebo. Liver fat content improvements were numerically higher but not statistically significant; however, we did see significant dose-dependent decreases in iron-corrected T1 mapping with TERN-101. The treatment was associated with an increase in low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, especially early on, but then it stabilized and it was not significant vs placebo at 12 weeks. Pruritus rates were not particularly high, and all incidents of pruritus that we observed were mild and there were no pruritus-related drug discontinuations. This was an important finding, since pruritus can be a limitation with FXR agonists.

I also presented data on TVB-2640 during the meeting (abstract 141). The inhibition of FASN decreases de novo lipogenesis and potentiates beta oxidation. Our study had 2 different cohorts: 1 from the United States and 1 from China. Despite differences in baseline characteristics between the cohorts, TVB-2640 reduced liver fat and decreased ALT in both populations. We saw a robust reduction in liver fat by magnetic resonance imaging–derived proton density fat fraction with the 50-mg dose relative to placebo, and there was a dose response with the 25-mg dose. We reported that aspartate transaminase and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol also improved, without an elevation of triglycerides—whereas an elevation of triglycerides has been observed with acetyl-CoA carboxylase inhibition. Other features of FASN inhibition included increased adiponectin, with the potential for increased insulin sensitivity, and increased FGF21. We also noticed an improvement in the NASH biomarker PRO-C3. We determined the optimal dose to be 50 mg, and a phase 2b trial in patients with biopsy-confirmed NASH is currently underway. In moving to phase 3, our goal would be to look at the liver histology to see improvements in NASH activity and NASH resolution, relative to placebo, with a 50-mg dose.

In conclusion, several promising agents for NASH are in development, and the respective clinical trials increasingly utilize noninvasive tests to measure improvements. We will need to see sustained efficacy in these clinical trials, so long-term data will be important.


Bhattacharya D, Basta B, Mato JM, et al. Aramchol downregulates stearoyl CoA-desaturase 1 in hepatic stellate cells to attenuate cellular fibrogenesis. JHEP Rep. 2021;3(3):100237. doi:10.1016/j.jhepr.2021.100237 Research study on whether semaglutide works in people with non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). Updated November 22, 2021. Accessed November 22, 2021.

Dennis A, Kelly MD, Fernandes C, et al. Correlations between MRI biomarkers PDFF and cT1 with histopathological features of non-alcoholic steatohepatitis. Front Endocrinol (Lausanne). 2021;11:575843. doi:10.3389/fendo.2020.575843

Harrison SA, Bashir MR, Guy CD, et al. Resmetirom (MGL-3196) for the treatment of non-alcoholic steatohepatitis: a multicentre, randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, phase 2 trial. Lancet. 2019;394(10213):2012-2024. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(19)32517-6

Ibrahim SH, Hirsova P, Gores GJ. Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis pathogenesis: sublethal hepatocyte injury as a driver of liver inflammation. Gut. 2018;67(5):963-972. doi:10.1136/gutjnl-2017-315691

Loomba R, Johansson L, Charlton RW, et al. Treatment with BIO89-100 led to decreased spleen volume that was correlated with relative change in liver fat volume and PRO-C3 level in a phase 1b/2a, placebo-controlled, double-blind, NASH proof of concept (POC) study [abstract 139]. Abstract presented at: AASLD The Liver Meeting; November 12-15, 2021. 

Loomba R, Kayali Z, Noureddin M, et al. GS-0976 reduces hepatic steatosis and fibrosis markers in patients with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Gastroenterology. 2018;155(5):1463-1473.e6. doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2018.07.027

Loomba R, Kowdley KV, Vuppalanchi R, et al. Liver-distributed FXR agonist TERN-101 demonstrates favorable safety and efficacy profile in NASH phase 2a LIFT study [abstract 143]. Abstract presented at: AASLD The Liver Meeting; November 12-15, 2021.

Loomba R, Rinella ME, Harrison SA, et al. Novel, first-in-class, fatty acid synthase (FASN) inhibitor TVB-2640 demonstrates robust clinical efficacy and safety in a global phase 2 randomized placebo-controlled NASH trial (FASCINATE-1) conducted in the US and China [abstract 141]. Abstract presented at: AASLD The Liver Meeting; November 12-15, 2021.

Parlati L, Régnier M, Guillou H, Postic C. New targets for NAFLD. JHEP Rep. 2021;3(6):100346. doi:10.1016/j.jhepr.2021.100346

Ratziu V, de Guevara L, Safadi R, et al. Aramchol in patients with nonalcoholic steatohepatitis: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled phase 2b trial. Nat Med. 2021;27(10):1825-1835. doi:10.1038/s41591-021-01495-3

Singh S, Karthikeyan C, Moorthy NSHN. Recent advances in the development of fatty acid synthase inhibitors as anticancer agents. Mini Rev Med Chem. 2020;20(18):1820-1837. doi:10.2174/1389557520666200811100845

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