Virta Health, a digital health upstart that helps treat and prevent diabetes without the use of medication or surgery, is touting a new study showing the approach also holds promise for a common liver disease, Fortune has learned.
“These study results are particularly exciting because there are currently no drugs on the market to treat the condition,” Virta CEO Sami Inkinen told Fortune in an interview.
The condition is called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and involves a buildup of fatty tissue in the liver. Appproximately 30% to 40% of American adults have NAFLD, according to the National Institutes for Health (NIH) – a figure likely informed by the fact that people with obesity or type 2 diabetes are at significantly higher risk for the disorder.
Fat in the liver in and of itself doesn’t necessarily cause any symptoms. However, people with the more serious form of the disease, nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), can face extensive liver damage that can even progress to liver cancer.
Patients with NAFLD are usually just told to lose weight and maintain a healthy diet – and that’s where Virta comes in. The company’s platform consists of connected devices that collect biometric data such as weight and other markers and sends this data to medical experts who then tailor personalized diet and lifestyle suggestions to customers. Previous studies have shown that Virta’s technology doesn’t just show promise in preventing prediabetes from morphing into type 2 diabetes, but can actually reverse type 2 diabetes in patients who have used the all-digital system for at least a year.
The new research, a nonrandomized controlled study, shows similarly impressive results for type 2 diabetes patients who also have NAFLD. People who stuck with the Virta system for a year experienced 12% average weight loss and 60% reductions in liver fat scores, among other improvements in metabolic and cardiovascular risk factors.
“NAFLD is a silent liver disease because patients often do not experience symptoms until it has progressed to NASH, cirrhosis or liver failure,” said senior study author Dr. Naga Chalasani in a statement. “Because there are no approved [drugs] for NASH and diagnosing the coexistence of NAFLD is rarely pursued in the standard treatment approach for type 2 diabetes, it is encouraging to see the Virta’s Treatment effect on this common comorbidity.”
A number of major pharmaceutical companies have been pursuing experimental treatments for NASH, eyeing the massive market such a breakthrough treatment would have in the U.S. If Virta’s results hold true and can be replicated, it might beat them to the finish line as the first effective tool to fight the liver disease.