By Judy Packer-Tursman

Doctors trying to treat patients with nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) — a serious type of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) that, if left untreated, may progress to cardiovascular disease, cirrhosis, cancer and possibly the need for a liver transplant — soon may have new options in their arsenal beyond promoting exercise and diet. The first-ever NASH drugs are expected to hit the U.S. market as early as 2020 to help address this increasingly prevalent, complex disease spawned largely by the obesity epidemic and surge of type 2 diabetes in the U.S.

Dieterich says the entry of first-ever NASH medications will “definitely” offer significant benefit to patients. “There’s no question [the drugs will help] — in combination with diet and exercise,” says Douglas Dieterich, M.D., director of the Institute for Liver Medicine at Mount Sinai Health System. “It will have to be the whole package.”

Multiple drugs are in phase 3 clinical trials for NASH. A front-runner is Intercept Pharmaceuticals, Inc.’s drug, Ocaliva (obeticholic acid), already on the market to treat another liver condition. But the FDA isn’t expected to approve Intercept’s drug for NASH until the second quarter of 2020, Dieterich notes.

Dieterich says he expects NASH medications will “undoubtedly” be marketed as specialty drugs that will be “strictly controlled” by PBMs and insurance companies. He expects such drugs to become available only to the sickest patients, possibly only after a diagnostic liver biopsy is performed.

From a plan perspective, Yusuf Rashid, R.Ph., vice president of pharmacy and vendor relationship management at Community Health Plan of Washington, says NASH “has similarities to other recent new breakthrough therapies where the outcome we are trying to avoid is costly and potentially fatal but not all patients…will even progress to fibrosis. The reason why NASH is more significant is the sheer number of patients that may qualify for treatment.”