Two Popular Diabetes Drugs Outperformed Others in Large Clinical Trial

Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Health System Complete First Study Comparing Commonly Used Type 2 Diabetes Medications

September 22, 2022—(BRONX, NY)—In a large clinical trial that directly compared four drugs commonly used to treat type 2 diabetes, researchers from around the country, including those at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Health System, found that insulin glargine and liraglutide performed the best of four medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to maintain blood glucose levels in the recommended range. Blood glucose management is a key component of keeping people with type 2 diabetes healthy. All four medications evaluated were added to treatment with metformin, which is the first-line drug to treat type 2 diabetes. Their findings were published online September 21 in a pair of papers in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

Jill P. Crandall, M.D.

Jill P. Crandall, M.D.

“Nearly 1 in 3 adults in the Bronx have diabetes,” said Jill P. Crandall, M.D., coauthor on one of the NEJM papers and professor of medicine and the Jacob A. and Jeanne E. Barkey Chair in Medicine at Einstein, and chief of endocrinology at Einstein and Montefiore. “The results from this study are critical to ensuring physicians have evidence-based treatment guidelines and that we are providing our patients with the information they need to make informed decisions about how to manage their disease.”

A Growing Epidemic

More than 37 million Americans have diabetes, and approximately 90 to 95% of them have T2D. People with diabetes who keep their blood glucose levels in the near-normal range generally have a much lower risk of developing diabetes complications such as nerve, kidney, and eye diseases. Diabetes is difficult to treat, as most people require more than one medication to control blood sugar levels over time.

While there is general agreement among health care professionals that metformin combined with diet and exercise is the best early approach in diabetes care, there is no consensus on what to do next to best keep high blood glucose in check.

Making the GRADE

Launched in 2013, the Glycemia Reduction Approaches in Diabetes: A Comparative Effectiveness (GRADE) Study was conducted at 36 U.S. study centers, including Einstein and Montefiore, where Dr. Crandall is site principal investigator. It was designed to compare four major medications approved by the FDA at the time GRADE started to treat diabetes in combination with metformin.

Janet Brown-Friday, R.N., M.S.N., M.P.H., was the GRADE program coordinator at Einstein and Montefiore, overseeing study recruitment and clinical visits. Ms. Brown-Friday, who is also president-elect for healthcare and education at the American Diabetes Association, oversaw the fastest accrual of all sites.

GRADE, funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the National Institutes of Health, enrolled 5,047 people with T2D from diverse racial and ethnic groups who were already taking metformin. Participants were randomly placed into one of four treatment groups. Three groups took metformin plus a medicine that increased insulin levels, sitagliptin, liraglutide, or glimepiride. The fourth group took metformin and insulin glargine U-100, a long-acting insulin.

After an average of four years of follow-up, the study found that participants taking metformin plus liraglutide or insulin glargine achieved and maintained their target blood levels for the longest time compared to sitagliptin or glimepiride. This translated into approximately six months more time with blood glucose levels in the target range compared with sitagliptin, which was the least effective in maintaining target levels. Treatment effects did not differ based on age, sex, race, or ethnicity.

However, none of the combinations overwhelmingly outperformed the others. Although average blood sugar levels decreased during the study, nearly three quarters of all participants were unable to maintain the blood glucose target over four years, underscoring the difficulty in maintaining recommended targets in many patients with T2D.

This study is critical to ensuring physicians have evidence-based treatment guidelines and that we are providing our patients with the information they need to make informed decisions about how to manage their disease.

Jill P. Crandall, M.D.

Additional Findings

The study also looked at the treatments’ effects on developing diabetes-related cardiovascular disease. Researchers found that participants in the liraglutide group were least likely to experience any cardiovascular disease overall compared to the other groups.

The study also examined side effects of the drugs, finding:

  • Severe hypoglycemia, often called a low blood glucose reaction, was generally uncommon, but affected more participants assigned to glimepiride (2.2%).
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms were more common with liraglutide than with the other three treatment groups.

In addition, on average, participants in all treatment groups lost weight. Over four years, people in the liraglutide and sitagliptin arms lost more weight (an average of 7 and 4 pounds, respectively) than the glargine and glimepiride arms (less than 2 pounds).

A now-available type of diabetes drug called SGLT2 inhibitors was not approved by the FDA at the launch of GRADE recruitment and was not included in the study.

The GRADE Study was supported by a grant from NIDDK (U01DK098246). Additional support was provided by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and the American Diabetes Association. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs provided resources and facilities. Material support in the form of donated medications and supplies has been provided by Becton, Dickinson and Company, Bristol Myers Squibb, Merck & Co., Inc., Novo Nordisk, Roche Diagnostics, and Sanofi. number: NCT01794143.