Vitamin E pills can help people with a nonalcoholic fatty liver disease called steatohepatitis, researchers reported Wednesday. There is currently no treatment for the disease, which is similar to the liver disease that is caused by excessive drinking and that can lead to cirrhosis and scarring the impair the function of the organ, eventually proving fatal. It can affect people of all ages and most of them drink little, if any, alcohol. It is believed to be caused by abnormal metabolism of fats, which raises the level of damaging oxidants in the liver. An estimated 3% to 4% of Americans are afflicted with the problem, although many do not realize they have it.
"This is an important landmark in the search for effective treatments for [the disease]," said Patricia Robuck of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, project scientist for the new study.
Several small studies had previously suggested that insulin sensitizers and antioxidants might alter the progression of the disease. To test that possibility, a National Institutes of Health Clinical Research Network on the disease, led by Dr. Arun J. Sanyal of Virginia Commonwealth University, enrolled 247 adults with the disease but without diabetes, dividing them into three groups. One group received 800 international units of vitamin E daily, the second received the diabetes drug pioglitazone and the third received a placebo. It was the largest clinical trial ever conducted for treating the disease.
The researchers reported online in the New England Journal of Medicine that 43% of the patients receiving vitamin E showed a major improvement in liver function, compared with 19% of those who received either placebo or pioglitazone. Pioglitazone reduced liver inflammation and improved retention of lipids in 34% of the individual receiving it, but the improvements were not statistically significant. But those taking the diabetes drug also had a 10-pound weight gain.
Although the government funded the study, the pioglitazone was donated by its manufacturer, a U.S. subsidiary of Japan's Takeda Pharmaceutical and the vitamin E was donated by supplement maker Pharmavite of Mission Hills.
-- Thomas H. Maugh II
Photo: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times