Pegbelfermin (BMS-986036), a PEGylated human fibroblast growth factor 21 (FGF21) analogue, has previously been shown to improve markers of metabolism and liver fibrosis in obese patients with type 2 diabetes. In this phase 2a study, we aimed to evaluate the safety and efficacy of pegbelfermin in patients with non-alcoholic steatohepatitis.
In this multicentre, randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group, phase 2a study, we recruited adults (aged 21-75 years) with a body-mass index of at least 25 kg/m2, biopsy-confirmed non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (fibrosis stage 1-3), and a hepatic fat fraction of at least 10% when assessed by magnetic resonance imaging-proton density fat fraction. These patients were enrolled at 17 medical centres in the USA. Eligible patients were stratified by type 2 diabetes status and they were randomly assigned (1:1:1) by a computer-based system to receive subcutaneous injections of placebo once a day, 10 mg pegbelfermin once a day, or 20 mg pegbelfermin once a week, all for 16 weeks. Participants, the study team administering treatment, and investigators analysing outcomes (who were independent of the study team and had no further involvement) were masked to treatment groups. The primary outcomes were safety and the absolute change in hepatic fat fraction after 16 weeks of treatment. All patients who were randomly assigned to groups and received the study drug or placebo were included in the primary analyses. This trial was registered with ClinicalTrials.gov, number NCT02413372.
Between May 12, 2015, and Aug 4, 2016, 184 overweight or obese patients with non-alcoholic steatohepatitis were screened for study inclusion. Of these, 95 (52%) patients were excluded because they no longer met study criteria and 80 (43%) patients entered the placebo lead-in phase. After further exclusions, 75 (94%) patients were randomly assigned to groups, received at least one dose of treatment (25 patients to receive 10 mg pegbelfermin once a day; 24 patients to receive 20 mg pegbelfermin once a week, and 26 patients to receive placebo), and were included in the primary analysis. A prespecified interim analysis at week 8 showed a greater than expected change in the primary outcome and supported early closing of patient enrolment, since this analysis indicated that the full planned sample size was not needed. We observed a significant decrease in absolute hepatic fat fraction in the group receiving 10 mg pegbelfermin daily (-6·8% vs -1·3%; p=0·0004) and in the group receiving 20 mg pegbelfermin weekly (-5·2% vs -1·3%; p=0·008) compared with the placebo group. Most adverse events were mild; the most common events were diarrhoea in eight (16%) of 49 patients treated with pegbelfermin and two (8%) of 26 patients treated with placebo and nausea in seven (14%) patients treated with pegbelfermin and two (8%) patients treated with placebo. There were no deaths, discontinuations due to adverse events, or treatment-related serious adverse events.
Treatment with subcutaneously administered pegbelfermin for 16 weeks was generally well tolerated and significantly reduced hepatic fat fraction in patients with non-alcoholic steatohepatitis. Further study of pegbelfermin is warranted in patients with non-alcoholic steatohepatitis. Additional studies that use liver biopsies would allow for the assessment of pegbelfermin's effects on liver histology. Moreover, further studies should allow assessments of the safety and effectiveness of pegbelfermin in a larger number of patients.