Finding a treatment for fatty liver disease

Current animal models of fatty liver disease fail to predict if a drug could work in humans.

A histological section of a mouse liver with severe fatty liver disease caused by a high-fat diet (fat cells in white). Image credit: Mann et al. (CC BY 4.0)

Obesity and diabetes are increasingly common diseases that can lead to other complications such as fatty liver disease. Fatty liver disease affects one in five people and is caused by a built-up of fat in the liver, which can result in scarring of the liver tissue and other serious complications.

There is currently no cure for fatty liver disease. Drugs that have been effective in treating the condition in mice, lack efficacy in humans. To better understand why this is the case, Hunter, de Gracia Hahn, Duret, Im et al. conducted a review of over 5,000 published studies, analysing over 600 experiments.

Hunter et al. asked which drugs improved fatty liver in mice the most and if they had the same effect in humans. They also tested whether the age of the mice affected the outcome of the experiments. The analyses revealed that the drugs that work best in mice are different to the ones that show some effect in humans.

In mice, many of the drugs reduced their weight or lowered their blood sugar levels, which also improved the fatty liver condition. Moreover, drugs appeared to be less effective the older the mice were. However, most of these drugs do not cause weight loss or lower blood sugar levels in humans, suggesting that factors other than the intended action of these drug could affect the outcome of a mouse study.

These findings will help shape future research into obesity, diabetes and fatty liver disease using mice. They highlight that results obtained from studies with mice so far do not predict if a drug will work in humans to treat fatty liver disease. Moreover, weight loss seems to be the most important factor linked to how efficiently a drug treats fatty liver disease.