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Liver International ISSN 1478-3223
Diabetes mellitus in patients with cirrhosis: clinical implications and
rie Paradis3,6,7 and
Laure Elkrief1, Pierre-Emmanuel Rautou2,3,4, Shiv Sarin5, Dominique Valla2,3,6, Vale
Richard Moreau
^pitaux Universitaires de Geneve, Geneve, Suisse
Service de Gastroent
erologie et H
epatologie, Ho
^pital Beaujon, APHP, Clichy, France
DHU UNITY, Service d’H
epatologie, Ho
e Paris-Diderot, Sorbonne Paris Cit
e, Paris, France
Inserm U970, Paris Research Cardiovascular Center, Paris, France
Department of Hepatology, Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences, New Delhi, India
Inserm U1149, Centre de Recherche sur l’Inflammation CRI, Clichy, France
^pital Beaujon, APHP, Clichy, France
DHU UNITY, Pathology Department, Ho
Liver Int. 2016; 36: 936–948. DOI: 10.1111/liv.13115
Disorders of glucose metabolism, namely glucose intolerance and diabetes, are frequent in patients with chronic liver
diseases. In patients with cirrhosis, diabetes can be either a classical type 2 diabetes mellitus or the so-called hepatogenous diabetes, i.e. a consequence of liver insufficiency and portal hypertension. This review article provides an overview
of the possible pathophysiological mechanisms explaining diabetes in patients with cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is associated with
portosystemic shunts as well as reduced hepatic mass, which can both impair insulin clearance by the liver, contributing to peripheral insulin resistance through insulin receptors down-regulation. Moreover, cirrhosis is associated with
increased levels of advanced-glycation-end products and hypoxia-inducible-factors, which may play a role in the development of diabetes. This review also focuses on the clinical implications of diabetes in patients with cirrhosis. First, diabetes is an independent factor for poor prognosis in patients with cirrhosis. Specifically, diabetes is associated with the
occurrence of major complications of cirrhosis, including ascites and renal dysfunction, hepatic encephalopathy and
bacterial infections. Diabetes is also associated with an increased risk of hepatocellular carcinoma in patients with
chronic liver diseases. Last, the management of patients with concurrent diabetes and liver disease is also addressed.
Recent findings suggest a beneficial impact of metformin in patients with chronic liver diseases. Insulin is often
required in patients with advanced cirrhosis. However, the favourable impact of controlling diabetes in patients with
cirrhosis has not been demonstrated yet.
ascites – hepatic encephalopathy – hepatocellular carcinoma – hepatogenous diabetes – metformin
AGEs, advanced glycation-end products; CTGF, connective tissue growth factor; DPP-4, Dipeptyl peptidase-4; GLP-1, glucagon-like peptide-1;
HbA1c, glycated haemoglobin; HCC, hepatocellular carcinoma; HIF, hypoxia inducible factor; IGF1, insulin growth factor-1; MELD, model for endstage liver disease; NAFLD, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease; NASH, non-alcoholic steatohepatitis; PPAR, peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor.
Dr Laure Elkrief, Service de Gastroent
erologie et H
epatologie, Avenue Gabrielle-Perret-Gentil 4, 1211 Geneva, Switzerland.
Tel: +41 79 55 33 704; Fax: +41 22 37 29366
e-mail: Laure.elkrief@hcuge.ch
The Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences has been endorsed by the Inserm as an International Laboratory associated to the INSERM Unit 1149 and
e Paris-Diderot, Sorbonne Paris Cit
e, Paris, both in France.
Handling Editor: Isabelle Leclercq
Received 22 June 2015; Accepted 7 March 2016
Additional Supporting Information may be found at onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/liv.13115/suppinfo
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© 2016 John Wiley & Sons A/S. Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd
Elkrief et al.
Key points
• In patients with cirrhosis, diabetes may be either a
consequence of liver disease or an underlying type 2
• In patients with cirrhosis, fasting blood glucose
may be normal despite diabetes. Oral glucose tolerance test allows diagnosing diabetes.
• Diabetes is a factor of poor survival and increases
the risk of complications of cirrhosis. This suggests
that active screening and management of diabetes
could be beneficial in patients with cirrhosis.
• The use of metformin seems safe and may have a
beneficial impact on patients’ outcome. However, no
treatment has been proven to improve the prognosis
of patients with cirrhosis and concurrent diabetes.
Diabetes mellitus in cirrhosis
Pathophysiological mechanisms promoting liver fibrosis
in patients with insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes
As a part of metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes can
promote NAFLD. Patients with isolated steatosis generally have an excellent prognosis, while patients with
non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) may develop
fibrosis leading to cirrhosis and its complications (6).
Pathophysiological mechanisms leading to NASH and
NASH-related fibrosis have been recently reviewed in
detail elsewhere (9). Moreover, diabetes likely contributes to fibrosis progression and cirrhosis independently from NAFLD by modulating several key
processes implicated in fibrogenesis, which are detailed
Activation of hepatic stellate cells
The liver plays a pivotal role in glucose homeostasis. It
stores glycogen in the fed state and produces glucose
through glycogenolysis and gluconeogenesis in the fasting
state. There are close relationships between liver diseases
and disorders of glucose metabolism. On the one hand,
the risk of death from chronic liver diseases is increased in
patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus (1–3). One the other
hand, the presence of diabetes in patients with cirrhosis is
an independent factor for poor survival, and is associated
with the major complications of cirrhosis. The treatment
of diabetes in patients with chronic liver diseases is complex, because of impaired liver and/or renal functions, and
of the potential hepatotoxicity of oral hypoglycaemic
agents. The aim of this review is to provide an update on
the relationships between cirrhosis and diabetes. We will
focus on recent advances in the pathophysiological mechanisms, diagnosis, clinical implications and therapeutic
management of diabetes in patients with cirrhosis.
Hepatic stellate cells, the liver-specific pericytes, are
localized in the space of Disse. In a chronically injured
liver, hepatic stellate cells promote liver fibrosis through
excessive extra-cellular matrix production and reduced
extra-cellular matrix degradation (10). Glucose and
insulin have profibrogenic properties on hepatic stellate
cells. Indeed, incubation of hepatic stellate cells with
high glucose or insulin levels leads to overexpression of
the key profibrogenic gene connective tissue growth factor (CTGF) (11). Hyperglycaemia and oxidative stress
contribute to the accumulation of advanced-glycationend (AGE) products. Interestingly, functional receptors
for AGE products are overexpressed in activated hepatic
stellate cells (12). This up-regulation of receptors for
AGE products suggests that insulin and hyperglycaemia
may also activate hepatic stellate cells through the ligation of AGE products on their receptors.
Impact of diabetes on progression of liver fibrosis
and cirrhosis development
Epidemiological links between type 2 diabetes and
Type 2 diabetes is a risk factor for liver fibrosis development and progression. There is a strong relationship
between the components of the insulin resistance syndrome and the stage of liver fibrosis (4, 5). Several independent groups observed in large cohorts of patients
that type 2 diabetes is associated with a 2 to 2.5-fold
increased risk of cirrhosis development, and of death
from chronic liver diseases, mainly attributable to nonalcoholic fatty liver diseases (NAFLD) (1–3). Interestingly, the effect of diabetes on fibrosis has been found to
be independent from other components of the metabolic syndrome (6). Furthermore, recent cohort studies
in Taiwan showed that diabetes mellitus is an independent predictor of cirrhosis in patients with chronic hepatitis B and chronic hepatitis C (7, 8).
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Inflammation is a major player in the development of
liver fibrosis. (13). The link between diabetes and
inflammation is now well established and type 2 diabetes is viewed as an auto-inflammatory disease (14).
Inflammation plays a crucial role in the pathogenesis of
diabetes-related complications. For instance, inflammation and subsequent extracellular matrix expansion play
a key role in the development and progression of diabetic nephropathy (15). Regarding the liver, indirect
data suggest that systemic inflammation associated with
insulin-resistance and diabetes might contribute to progression of liver fibrosis. In patients with hepatitis C,
insulin resistance and diabetes are associated with liver
fibrosis progression as well as with necroinflammatory
activity (16, 17).
Apoptosis is a type of cell death characterized by the
fragmentation of the dying cell into membrane-bound
Diabetes mellitus in cirrhosis
vesicles, called apoptotic bodies. Apoptosis is a key
player in the progression of liver fibrosis (18). Engulfment of apoptotic bodies by hepatic stellate cells
stimulates their fibrogenic activity and may be one
mechanism by which hepatocyte apoptosis promotes
fibrosis (19). Indirect data suggest that diabetes might
promote fiborsis through aptoptosis. First, the dysregulation of the insulin receptor pathway, associated
with insulin resistance, promotes liver cell apoptosis
(20). In patients with NASH, plasma cytokeratin 18
substrates, a biomarker of liver apoptosis, is associated with liver fibrosis (21, 22). However, the association between diabetes and apoptosis remains to be
Angiogenesis consists in the formation of new vascular
structures from pre-existing blood vessels. Excessive
angiogenesis plays a major role in the pathophysiology
of diabetic complications including nephropathy,
retinopathy as well as macrovascular diseases (23).
Interestingly, excessive angiogenesis plays a role in the
pathophysiology of these diseases and promotes fibrosis
through the activation of CTGF (24–26).
Pathological angiogenesis has also been described in
chronic liver diseases, including NASH (27). First, it has
been shown that leptin-mediated neovascularisation,
coordinated by vascular endothelial growth factor
(VEGF), plays an important role in the development of
liver fibrosis in a rat model of NASH (28). More
recently, the same group showed that CD34 expression,
a marker of neovascularisation, was overexpressed in
the liver of patients with NASH. Furthermore, there was
Elkrief et al.
a positive correlation between neovascularisation and
insulin resistance as well as with liver fibrosis (29). Thus,
this suggests that insulin resistance and diabetes, as in
other tissues, promote liver fibrosis through angiogenesis. Yet, the impact of diabetes, outside the context of
NASH, on excessive angiogenesis and subsequent liver
fibrosis has not been evaluated.
Hepatic sinusoidal capillarization
Hepatic sinusoidal capillarization refers to the loss of
endothelial cell fenestration, associated with the deposition of collagen and other extracellular matrix proteins in the space of Disse. This mechanism is
implicated in the progression of liver fibrosis (30).
The role of insulin signalling and of hyperglycaemia
on sinusoidal endothelial cells and their impact on
liver fibrogenesis has not been studied (31). Yet, the
increase in extra-cellular matrix deposition in the
space of Disse typically observed in liver biopsies from
patients with diabetes suggests that hepatic sinusoidal
capillarization may promote liver fibrosis in the diabetes setting (32–34).
Impact of cirrhosis on glucose homeostasis
In a normal individual, the liver plays a key role in
maintaining glucose homeostasis. In patients with
advanced cirrhosis, alterations in glucose metabolism,
the so-called hepatogenous diabetes, have been
described. Fig. 1 summarizes the potential mechanisms which might participate into the occurrence of
hepatogenous diabetes mellitus in patients with cirrhosis.
Fig. 1. Proposed pathophysiology of diabetes mellitus in patients with cirrhosis.
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Elkrief et al.
Decreased insulin clearance by the liver
In patients with cirrhosis, several structural changes
can decrease the extraction of insulin by the liver,
leading to increased systemic insulin levels. These
structural modifications include: (a) a reduction in
liver cell mass, which decreases the clearance of insulin
(35) because insulin is metabolized and degraded
mainly by parenchymal liver cells (36); (b) portosystemic venous collaterals, because of the decreased hepatic first-pass extraction, resulting in high levels of
insulin. In patients with cirrhosis and surgical portocaval shunts, insulin levels in the hepatic veins are
markedly increased, compared to patients without surgical shunts. By contrast, C-peptide levels do not differ between patients with cirrhosis and controls (37).
This view is also supported by the fact that glucose
control deteriorates and circulating insulin levels
increase after transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic
shunt placement in diabetic patients (38).
Subsequently, hyperinsulinaemia can lead to resistance to insulin through insulin receptor down-regulation. Indeed, hyperinsulinaemia induces a reduction in
insulin receptor affinity, a reduction in the number of
receptors exposed at the surface of the target cell and a
diminution of the effectiveness of the insulin receptor as
a transmitter of stimulatory signals (39).
Increased advanced-glycation-end products
Although hyperglycaemia fosters the AGEs, AGEs could
also induce insulin resistance and beta-cell injury prior
to diabetes onset (40). Besides the kidney, the liver also
seems to be involved in the removal of AGEs (41). In
patients with cirrhosis without diabetes, plasma AGE
levels are markedly elevated and correlate with the
severity of the liver disease (42, 43). After liver transplantation, a clear decline in AGEs levels occurs (42).
According to these findings, it can be speculated that in
patients with cirrhosis, the accumulation of AGEs,
related to a reduced removal of AGEs, may promote
Hypoxia and hypoxia-inducible factors
Systemic hypoxia is observed in patients with advanced
cirrhosis, and is related to the severity of the liver disease
(44). The hypoxia-inducible factors (HIFs) are a family
of transcriptional regulators that induce a homeostatic
response to hypoxia in virtually all cells and tissues.
HIFs have been implicated in the development of liver
fibrosis in in vitro and murine models (45, 46). HIFs
also play a key role in glucose metabolism, and are
implicated in the development of diabetes mellitus (47).
HIF, namely HIF-1a, is also important for pancreatic bcell reserve. However, the mechanisms are complex.
Indeed, in HIF-1 knock-out mice, pancreatic b-cell
function is impaired (48). Mild increase in HIF-1a is
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Diabetes mellitus in cirrhosis
beneficial for b-cell function and glucose tolerance. By
contrast, very high levels of HIF-1, such as those observe
in severe hypoxia are clearly deleterious for b-cell function (48). Thus, cirrhosis-related hypoxia might be
hypothetized to promote the occurrence of hepatogenous diabetes mellitus.
A liver–pancreas axis
Glucose intolerance in cirrhosis results from peripheral
insulin resistance and hyperinsulinaemia. Interestingly,
in patients with cirrhosis and overt diabetes, beta-cell
secretion, in response to hyperglycaemia is significantly
reduced, compared to patients with cirrhosis and normal glucose tolerance as well as those with glucose intolerance (49), suggesting that an altered secretion of
insulin by beta cells may contribute to the development
of overt diabetes (36). Recently, Yi and colleagues
observed that a hormone named betatrophin, primarily
expressed in the hepatocytes, induced b-cell proliferation and improved glucose tolerance in a murine model
(50). However, recent data suggest that betatrophin
levels might rather be associated with insulin resistance,
rather than b-cell proliferation. Betatrophin levels were
found to be increased in patients with type 2 diabetes
compared to non-diabetic subjects (51–54). Furthermore, in a recent study including more than 1000 nondiabetic subjects, there was a strong correlation between
betatrophin levels and HOMA-IR (54). Plasma betatrophin levels were significantly increased in patients
with cirrhosis compared to healthy individuals. Betatrophin levels were also associated with liver disease
severity. Moreover, betatrophin levels were significantly
higher in patients with insulin resistance than in those
without (55). These findings support a possible functional role of betatrophin in type 2 diabetes, where it
could play a role in compensating for the increased
insulin demand despite liver insufficiency.
Diagnosis and clinical presentation of diabetes in
patients with cirrhosis
In patients with cirrhosis, disorders of glucose metabolism range from mere glucose intolerance to overt diabetes. It is estimated that only 30% of the patients have
normal glucose tolerance, 30–50% have impaired glucose tolerance and up to 30% have overt diabetes (56–
59). This is much higher than in the general population,
where the prevalence of glucose intolerance is around
15% and that of diabetes is 8% (60, 61).
The diagnosis of diabetes in patients with cirrhosis
may not be easy. First, at early stage, fasting serum
glucose levels is normal in 23% of the patients with
overt diabetes (57). Indeed, such patients have normal fasting blood glucose, whereas post-prandial
blood glucose is >200 mg/L (62). Thus, an oral glucose tolerance test is needed to detect the impairment
of glucose metabolism.
Diabetes mellitus in cirrhosis
Elkrief et al.
Furthermore, discrimination between type 2 diabetes
and hepatogenous diabetes is frequently not possible.
Still, hepatogenous diabetes may have different clinical
characteristics from type 2 diabetes. Among 50 patients
with hepatogenous diabetes, only 16% of patients had a
family history of diabetes. Only 8% had retinopathy.
After a mean follow-up of 5 years, no cardiovascular
deaths was reported, whereas 52% of the patients had
died, mainly from complications of cirrhosis (56). This
may be either related to the shorter duration of diabetes
in patients with hepatogenous diabetes than in patients
with type 2 diabetes or to the fact that mortality is
mostly related to cirrhosis-related complications in
these patients (63).
In patients with isolated hepatogenous diabetes, liver
transplantation by itself can normalize glucose tolerance
and insulin sensitivity (64), supporting the idea that diabetes was related to cirrhosis. However, post-transplantation diabetes remains a very common condition, as it
is estimated that about 30% of liver transplant recipients
have diabetes (65). Interestingly, in patients receiving a
liver graft, pretransplantation diabetes, as well as
advanced age, family history of diabetes, and maximum
body mass index over 25 kg/m2 (which are risk factors
for type 2 diabetes), is associated with the development
of post-transplantation diabetes (66). These data suggest
that diabetes mellitus present at the time of liver transplantation was not only exclusively related to advanced
liver disease but also to pre-existing metabolic abnormalities. The causes of liver disease also appear to be an
important risk factor for the development of diabetes in
patients with cirrhosis. Indeed, diabetes is more frequent in patients with hepatitis C-related cirrhosis (67,
68) or alcohol-related cirrhosis than in patients with biliary cirrhosis (69). However, cirrhosis remains independently associated with cirrhosis. Indeed, among patients
with hepatitis C infection, diabetes is more frequently
observed in patients with cirrhosis (24%) than in those
without (6%) (70).
Measurement of glycated haemoglobin (HbA1c) does
not accurately reflect glycaemic status in patients with
cirrhosis. In patients without liver diseases, HbA1c is
used for routine evaluation and the management of
patients with diabetes. HbA1c concentration reflects the
previous 2–3 months of glycaemic status and is well
correlated with the development of diabetes-related
complications (71, 72). Studies on small-sized series of
patients indicate that HbA1c measurement is not accurate in patients with cirrhosis (73–75). Indeed, 40% of
the non-diabetic patients with cirrhosis had HbA1c values below the normal range in a non-diabetic reference
population (75, 76). Furthermore, patients with cirrhosis and concurrent diabetes also had HbA1c values in
the non-diabetic reference, namely between 4 and 6%
(76). Only a small proportion of patients with cirrhosis
and diabetes had high HbA1c (76). Furthermore,
patients with cirrhosis showed similar values of HbA1c
compared to control patients, although fasting plasma
glucose was higher in patients with cirrhosis (74). The
reason why HbA1c measurement is not accurately
reflecting glycaemic control in patients with cirrhosis
remains unclear. Shortened erythrocyte life span, which
is common in patients with cirrhosis and is known to
cause low HbA1c values, could play a role independent
of glycaemia. Fructosamine measurement reflects glycaemic status over a period of 2–4 weeks. Fructosamine
level appears to be a more accurate tool than HbA1c for
monitoring glycaemic control in patients with cirrhosis
(75, 76) .
Prognostic impact of diabetes in patients with
The prognostic value of diabetes in cirrhosis has previously been investigated only in a limited number of
studies on selected patients. Some studies included
patients with advanced cirrhosis, whereas others
included patients with well-compensated cirrhosis; most
of these studies found that diabetes was associated with
a lower survival (57–59, 63, 77–79) (Table 1). Recently,
a French cohort study of 348 patients with hepatitis Crelated cirrhosis admitted to hospital found that diabetes was associated with a shorter transplantation-free
survival, independent of model for end-stage liver disease (MELD) score (Odds ratio 1.3). Diabetes markedly
influenced the prognosis in patients with baseline
MELD score <10. By contrast, diabetes had no impact
on survival in patients with a baseline MELD score ≥10
(63). These findings suggest that the severity of liver disease masks the deleterious effect of diabetes and/or that
Table 1. Studies evaluating the prognostic impact of diabetes in patients with cirrhosis
Author (ref)
Type of study
Characteristics of the patients
Survival (diabetics vs. non diabetic)
Bianchi (77)
Moreau (78)
Nishida (76)
Sangiovanni (98)
Berman (96)
Quintana (97)
Elkrief (82)
Refractory ascites
Various aetiologies
HCV compensated cirrhosis
Compensated cirrhosis
Hospitalized HCV cirrhosis
37 months
2 years
5 years
17 years
90 days
2.5 years
4.5 years
64 vs. 82% (P
18 vs. 58% (P
56 vs. 95% (P
No difference
No difference
69 vs. 48% (P
24 vs. 34% (P
= 0.005)
= 0.0004)
< 0.05)
< 0.05)
= 0.03)
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Diabetes mellitus in cirrhosis
in patients with high MELD score, diabetes related to
cirrhosis, and thus has no independent effect on survival.
Hepatocellular carcinoma
It is now well established that the risk of cancer is
increased in patients with type 2 diabetes, including
hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) (80). In a meta-analysis of 28 prospective studies, pre-existing diabetes was
significantly associated with an increased incidence of
HCC (relative risk 1.87) and HCC-specific mortality
(relative risk 1.88) (81). Yet, no practical recommendations can be suggested for patients with cirrhosis and
diabetes. In patients with cirrhosis, compared to
patients undergoing ultrasound surveillance every
6 months, three-month ultrasonographical examination
did not improve either the rate of detection of small
HCCs eligible for curative treatment or the overall survival rate compared to patients undergoing surveillance
every 6 months (82).
Ascites and renal dysfunction
We recently reported that diabetes is associated with the
development of ascites, independent of MELD score in
patients with hepatitis C-related cirrhosis (63). Diabetes
also seems to be associated with refractory ascites.
Indeed, in a French prospective study of 100 patients
with cirrhosis and refractory ascites, diabetes was more
frequently observed in patients with Child Pugh class B
than Child Pugh class C cirrhosis suggesting a role of
diabetes independent from impaired liver function (59).
These observations suggest a specific role of diabetes in
the development of ascites. However, the involved
mechanisms remain elusive. In patients with cirrhosis,
ascites formation has been related to circulatory disturbances, renal dysfunction and sodium retention (83).
Moreover, in patients with cirrhosis on the waiting list
for liver transplantation, diabetic nephropathy is frequently observed when kidney biopsy is performed, and
is predictive of the development of renal dysfunction
after liver transplantation (84). In humans or animal
models without cirrhosis, diabetes is associated with
specific changes in the hepatic microcirculation, called
‘hepatic microangiopathy’ (or diabetic hepatosclerosis),
characterized by non-zonal perisinusoidal deposition of
collagen and basement membrane (33, 34, 85, 86)
(Fig. 2). In patients with cirrhosis and concurrent diabetes, such lesions might participate into the formation
of ascites. It is thus tempting to speculate that diabetesassociated microcirculatory changes in the liver and the
kidneys could promote ascites and renal dysfunction
(33). Supplemental Fig. S1 summarizes the mechanisms
promoting ascites in patients with cirrhosis and
Hepatic encephalopathy
The association between diabetes and hepatic
encephalopathy has been shown in several studies. In
the first study, among 65 patients with hepatitis Crelated cirrhosis, severe hepatic encephalopathy was
more common, contrasting with a preserved liver
function (87). In the second study, in 128 patients
with cirrhosis, diabetes was associated with minimal
hepatic encephalopathy (88). Furthermore, in a recent
French cohort of 348 patients with hepatitis C-related
cirrhosis, diabetes was associated with the presence of
hepatic encephalopathy, independent of MELD score
(63). The latter study included hospitalized patients,
and only overt hepatic encephalopathy was taken into
Several mechanisms by which diabetes could theoretically promote hepatic encephalopathy have been investigated. First, diabetes could increase ammonia
production by enhancing small intestine glutaminase
type K. Indeed, metformin which reduces glutaminase
activity in vitro has been shown to decrease the incidence of hepatic encephalopathy in patients with cirrhosis (89). Moreover, in a randomized control trial
including more than 100 patients, the administration of
an oral antidiabetic agent, acarbose, in patients with cirrhosis and concurrent diabetes significantly reduced
ammonia blood levels, and improved psychometric tests
for minimal hepatic encephalopathy (90). Second, the
Fig. 2. Pathological lesions found in the liver of patients with diabetes. Haematoxylin–eosin staining: (A) Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis features include macrovesicular steatosis (star), hepatocyte ballooning (black arrow) and lobular inflammation (cross), (B) Metabolic cirrhosis: at
the stage of cirrhosis, typical features of NAFLD may be lacking; Picrosirius coloration: (C) perisinusoidal fibrosis (star).
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Diabetes mellitus in cirrhosis
Elkrief et al.
inflammatory state associated with insulin resistance
and type 2 diabetes (91) could act synergistically with
cirrhosis and endotoxemia associated with encephalopathy (92). Third, intestine motility impairment has been
described in diabetic patients as a part of autonomic
neuropathy (93). It could promote small intestine bacterial overgrowth raising bacterial translocation, known to
favour hepatic encephalopathy (94).
diabetic patients than in non-diabetic (85 vs. 48%,
P < 0.0001) (101). In our cohort of 348 hospitalized
patients with HCV-related cirrhosis, diabetes was independently associated with bacterial infections development (63). Finally, in patients undergoing liver
transplantation, those with diabetes are at higher risk
for bacterial infections (102).
Management of diabetes in patients with cirrhosis
Bacterial infections
Diabetes mellitus and cirrhosis are two conditions that
predispose to bacterial infections. Diabetes has been
associated with increased rates of bacterial infections
(95). This feature may be partially explained by a
decreased T-cell-mediated immune response (96).
Impaired neutrophil function has also been documented
in diabetic patients (97). Bacterial infections are also
more common in patients with cirrhosis than in the
general population (98). They are also more severe since
mortality is four-fold higher in infected patients with
cirrhosis than in those without (99). The mechanisms of
increased susceptibility to infections in cirrhosis are
unclear. Functional alterations of monocytes and neutrophils have been observed. A role for deficiencies in
C3 and C4 has also been suggested (100). The synergy of
diabetes and cirrhosis to promote infections is supported by clinical evidence. In one cohort of 178 cirrhotic hospitalized patients (25% had diabetes), the
prevalence of bacterial infections was more frequent in
In patients with type 1 and type 2 diabetes, the Diabetes
Control and Complications Trial (DCCT) and the United Kingdom Prospective Diabetes Study (UKPDS)
studies have demonstrated that poor glycaemic control
(based on an HbA1c level above 7% for type 1 diabetes
and 6.5% for type 2 diabetes) was directly associated
with the development of diabetic micro- and macroangiopathy (71, 72). In patients with cirrhosis and diabetes, the risk of cirrhosis complications seems to be
higher than the risk of diabetes complications. The
impact of early diagnosis and treatment of diabetes on
the clinical course of patients with cirrhosis and diabetes
is unknown. However, it is tempting to speculate that it
could be beneficial. As detailed below, recent data suggesting that metformin decreases the risk of HCC as well
as the risk of hepatic encephalopathy are in favour of
screening and treating diabetes in patients with cirrhosis.
There is no clinical trial that specifically targeted
patients with coexistent diabetes and cirrhosis. The ther-
Table 2. Therapeutics options for treatment of diabetes mellitus in patients with cirrhosis
Useful in
type 2 DM
Useful in patients
with cirrhosis and DM
Decrease liver and adipose fat
Increase insulin sensitivity
Very useful
Potentially useful
Increase insulin sensitivity
Very useful
Very useful
Increase insulin sensitivity
No available data
Increase endogenous
production of insulin
Not useful
GLP-1 receptor analogues
DPP-4 inhibitors
Alpha-glucosidase inhibitors
Increase insulin sensitiviy
Very useful
Obese patients
(weight loss)
No available data
Mechanism of action
Lifestyle interventions
Low fat diet
Physical exercise
Decrease carbohydrate
absorption in the bowel
Substitutive treatment
Often necessary
May be useful in
patients with HE
Often necessary
Malnutrition frequent in patients
with cirrhosis
Physical exercise may not be
feasible in patients with
advanced cirrhosis
(edema, ascites)
Contraindicated in patients with
renal dysfunction
Theoretical risk of lactic acidosis
Reported hepatotoxicity
Usefulness in patients with
NASH has not been
Contraindicated in patients
with advanced cirrhosis
because of the risk of
Benign digestive side-effects
Risk of hypoglycaemia
DM, diabetes mellitus; NASH, non-alcoholic steatohepatitis; GLP-1, glucagon-like peptide-1; DPP-4, dipeptyl peptidase-4; HE, hepatic encephalopathy.
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Elkrief et al.
Diabetes mellitus in cirrhosis
apeutic options for diabetes, and their potential benefit
in patients with cirrhosis, are summarized in Table 2.
An algorithm for the management of diabetes in
patients with cirrhosis is proposed in Fig. 3.
Lifestyle interventions
The first-line therapy for type 2 diabetes consists of lifestyle changes, which includes hypocaloric diet and physical
exercise. The goal of physical exercise is to increase peripheral insulin sensitivity. Unfortunately, in patients with cirrhosis, such therapies may be inappropriate or unfeasible.
Indeed, up to 50 percent of cirrhotic patients have malnutrition (103), a contraindication to hypocaloric diet. Furthermore, ascites and edema hamper physical exercise.
Pharmacologic therapies
Pharmacologic options for the control of diabetes in
patients with liver diseases are, for the most part, similar
to patients without liver disease. Only patients with severe impaired liver function have altered drug metabolism. Regarding the risk of hepatotoxicity, while patients
with liver disease are not predisposed to hepatotoxicity,
the underlying liver disease may increase the severity of
drug-induced liver injury (104).
First-line therapy with metformin is theoretically appropriate in patients with cirrhosis because it decreases
insulin resistance. Metformin has long been considered
to be contraindicated in patients with advanced liver
disease because of a theoretical increase in the risk of
lactic acidosis (105). Yet, despite the widespread use of
metformin, only rare patients with cirrhosis developed
lactic acidosis, suggesting that metformin is safe in
patients with cirrhosis without renal dysfunction (106–
109) (Supplemental Table S1).
A growing number of observational studies suggest
that metformin (relative to other glucose-lowering therapies) could be associated with a reduced risk of cancer
or cancer mortality, including hepatocellular carcinoma
(110, 111). Furthermore, Zhang et al. recently reported
that continuation of metformin in patients with newly
diagnosed cirrhosis is associated with a longer survival
(112). In a recent cohort of 82 patients with cirrhosis
and diabetes, the occurrence of hepatic encephalopathy
was significantly lower in patients receiving metformin
(5 vs. 41%) (89). An indication bias may limit the interpretation of observational studies, as metformin is most
typically prescribed to patients with short duration of
diabetes and without contraindicating factors (advanced
age, liver or kidney disease) that also might impact the
prognosis (113). However, these data suggest that
metformin is the first-choice therapy for patients with
cirrhosis and diabetes.
Thiazolidinediones are insulin-sensitizing peroxisome
proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR) gamma agonists that do not increase insulin secretion directly or
cause hypoglycaemia when used alone. Thus, thiazolidinediones may be particularly useful in patients
with diabetes and chronic liver diseases. However,
troglitazone and rosiglitazone have been withdrawn
from the market because of their potential hepato-
Universal screening
Fasting plasma glucose
If normal: oral glucose tolerance test
Overt diabetes
No diabetes
Repeat screening every
2 years
Step 1 : lifestyle intervention*
Poor glucose control after 3 months
Step 2: medical treatment
Normal renal fonction
Impaired renal fonction**
Poor glucose control
after 3 months
* Control weight, increase physical activity
** Filtration glomerular rate <50 ml/min
Fig. 3. Proposed algorithm for the management of diabetes mellitus in patients with cirrhosis.
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Diabetes mellitus in cirrhosis
toxic effect and the risk of congestive heart failure
respectively. Pioglitazone is still currently available. In
patients with NASH, the usefulness of thiazolidinediones is debated (114). A meta-analysis of four randomized
thiazolidinediones significantly improve steatosis and
liver inflammation, but not fibrosis (115). Patients
with cirrhosis were excluded from these trials.
Insulin secretagogues
Insulin secretagogues include sulphonylureas and glinides. They trigger insulin release by the pancreatic beta
cells. Thus, in patients with cirrhosis, they may not be
the first-choice option, as they do not modify insulin
sensitivity. Moreover, patients with cirrhosis, especially
those with alcohol-related cirrhosis, may have pancreatic beta-islets cell damage. Most importantly, there is
an increased risk of hypoglycaemia with these therapies.
Thus, secretagogues are not recommended in patients
with high risk of hypoglycaemia (105).
Alpha-glucosidase inhibitors
Alpha-glucosidase inhibitors (acarbose) could be useful
in patients with cirrhosis, since they reduce carbohydrate absorption in the bowel, which would decrease the
risk of postprandial hyperglycaemia. Indeed, patients
with cirrhosis and diabetes frequently have normal
plasma fasting glucose and abnormal oral glucose tolerance test (56, 57). In a randomized, double-blind study
including 100 patients with compensated cirrhosis and
insulin-treated diabetes, the control of postprandial and
fasting blood glucose levels improved significantly with
the use of acarbose (116). In another crossover placebocontrolled study involving patients with hepatic
encephalopathy, there was a significant improvement in
postprandial blood glucose level in patients treated with
acarbose (90).
Dipeptyl peptidase-4 inhibitors and glucagon-like peptide1 receptor agonists
Glucagon-like peptide-1 is a gut-derived incretin hormone that stimulates insulin and suppresses glucagon
secretion, inhibits gastric emptying and reduces appetite
and food intake. Therapeutic approaches for enhancing
incretin action include DDP-4 inhibitors and GLP-1
analogues. These classes of therapeutic agents for type 2
diabetes were developed in the past 10 years and have
proven to be effective glucose lowering agents. In addition, GLP-1 analogues promote (moderate) weight loss
(117). So far, preclinical studies have found that incretins can improve hepatic steatosis (118). Although some
effects could be because of an overall improvement in
metabolic parameters, there are data to support
improvements independent from weight loss, as well as
direct effect on the hepatocyte. However, the safety and
Elkrief et al.
the usefulness of incretins in patients with cirrhosis need
further investigations.
Despite the potential interest of oral antidiabetic agents,
insulin therapy is frequently prescribed in patients with
cirrhosis, especially in those with advanced cirrhosis.
Among 348 patients with hepatitis C-related cirrhosis,
62% were on insulin therapy 63).
Importantly, caution must be made regarding the
dosage of insulin therapy. Indeed, insulin requirements
in patients with cirrhosis may vary depending on the
severity of cirrhosis. In patients with compensated cirrhosis, insulin requirement may be important because
insulin resistance predominates. In patients with decompensated cirrhosis, the hepatic metabolism of insulin is
reduced, which decreases the needs for insulin. Therefore, hospitalization might be safe for the initiation of
insulin therapy, by allowing for close monitoring of
blood glucose levels, to reduce the risk of hypoglycaemia.
Non selective beta-blockers are widely used in
patients with cirrhosis for prophylaxis of variceal bleeding (119). With regard to diabetic patients under insulin
treatment, beta-blockers may make hypoglycaemic episodes less symptomatic, leading to more profound alteration in mental state to develop without warning
symptoms. Moreover, hypoglycaemia can be precipitated by beta-adrenergic response because b2-adrenoceptors normally stimulate glycogenolysis and
pancreatic release of glucagon. However, a study comparing subjects with diabetes receiving or not betablockers found that beta-blockers did not increase the
number or the severity of hypoglycaemic episodes
(120). Thus, beta-blockers are not contraindicated in
patients with cirrhosis treated with insulin.
Diabetes mellitus is observed in up to 30% of patients
with cirrhosis. Diabetes can be either an underlying
type 2 diabetes mellitus or the consequence of alterations directly related to an impaired liver function.
Diabetes mellitus is associated with a poor prognosis
in patients with cirrhosis, mainly because of an
increased risk of cirrhosis complications. Thus, screening for diabetes mellitus should be proposed to all
patients with cirrhosis. Although it is tempting to
speculate that controlling diabetes may have a beneficial effect, further controlled studies are needed to
evaluate the effect of diabetes control on the development of complications of cirrhosis.
Financial disclosures: None.
Conflict of interest: The authors do not have any
disclosures to report.
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Additional Supporting Information may be found at
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© 2016 John Wiley & Sons A/S. Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd
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