Metformin in the Treatment of HIV Lipodystrophy Syndrome: A Randomized Controlled Trial (For PDF, Click Here)

Colleen Hadigan, MD; Colleen Corcoran, NP; Nesli Basgoz, MD; Benjamin Davis, MD; Paul Sax, MD; Steven Grinspoon, MD
JAMA Vol. 284, No. 4, July 26, 2000

Metformin CAUTIONS: (For PDF, Click Here)

There is an interesting article in Biochemical Pharmacology (Vol. 54, pp 801-808, 1997) authored by Jim Lenhard of the Dept. of Metabolic Diseases at Glaxo Wellcome. The article reports findings suggesting that Metformin and troglitazone affect fuel metabolism within mitochondria differently. There findings shows/suggests Metformin stimulates fat loss (catabolism) by increasing mitochondrial metabolism (see the attached PDF of article). Further, the article reports their findings that insulin enhances this effect. Thus, Glucophage/metformin may increase lipoatrophy and exacerbate mitochondrial toxicities. The study findings also say troglitazone has the opposite effect: it promotes anabolism. The article suggests that combining both drugs may be effective for diabetes. This suggests that it appears too soon to experiment with using metformin for people with HIV-related body changes/lipodystrophy until we learn more about the entire affects of using these drugs. The ACTG and Don Kotler at St Lukes-Roosevelt are planning further clinical studies. I'm planning an interview with Don Kotler that will be on my weekly radio show this sunday night: "Living Well With HIV & Hepatitis", every Sunday 11pm to 12 midnight on WOR 710AM. Free tapes and downloadable recordings of shows are available on NATAP web site. As well, live streaming audio is available on the WOR web site at Instructions on using their site are on NATAP web site, if you need them.

Dr. Michael Dube, of Indiana University and ACTG lipodystrophy researcher says, "Lactic acidosis, which can be fatal, is a rare side effect of metformin that is more likely to occur when there is some impairment of kidney function. Lactic acidosis is also a rare side effect of use of nucleoside analogs. There is no way to know at this time if using the two together might result in more frequent or more severe lactic acidosis problems. In my opinion, metformin and NRTI's should therefore only be used together with great caution. Also, keep in mind that metformin can lower vitamin B12 levels."
From- "How to Manage Side Effects" written by Michael Mooney, published by the Houston Buyers Club

The published study in JAMA was a pilot study of 26 individuals. Additional controlled trials are needed and the ACTG (AIDS Clinical Trials Group) is planning on doing a placebo-controlled, randomized study of metformin, rosiglitazone, or both for patients with high fasting insulin levels, with careful monitoring for lactic acidosis. As well, Don Kotler, MD, St Lukes-Roosevelt in NYC is planning a rosiglitazone study.

Here are the Methods, Results and Comments sections from the full text of the JAMA published article on Metformin. The PDF full text of article is attached for reading pleasure. As you'll see the authors report reduced waist circunfrance, reduced visceral abdominal fat, and subcutaneous abdominal fat decreased in proportion to VAT and no change was seen in VAT-SAT ratio in response to metformin treatment. There was no significant effect of treatment on waist-hip ratio. 64% (n=9) complained of mild to moderate diarrhea which was reported to improve for most within 4 weeks. No patient developed lactic acidosis.




Patients were recruited between December 1998 and January 2000 from Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and from community-based practices and through newspaper advertisements. Patients were eligible based on the following inclusion criteria: documented HIV infection, aged 18 to 60 years, stable antiviral therapy regimen for at least 6 weeks prior to study enrollment, impaired glucose tolerance (blood glucose level 140-200 mg/dL [7.8-11.1 mmol/L] at 120 minutes following standard oral glucose tolerance test  [OGTT])16 and/or hyperinsulinemia (fasting insulin level >15 µIU/mL [104 pmol/L]),  abnormal waist-hip ratio (for men, >0.9; for women, >0.8), and evidence of fat  redistribution. Fat redistribution was scored as present or absent based on evidence of fat accumulation in the trunk, breast, or neck, and/or loss of fat in the face or  extremities on physical examination. All patients had evidence of significant fat redistribution in 1 or more areas. Patients were excluded if they had history of renal  failure; a serum creatinine level of 1.5 mg/dL (133 µmol/L) or more; history of congestive heart failure; an elevated aspartate aminotransferase level; an alkaline  phosphatase level or prothrombin time of more than 2.0 times the upper limit of normal; a hemoglobin level of less than 8 g/dL (80 g/L); history of diabetes mellitus or  diabetic response to an OGTT (fasting glucose level >126 mg/dL [7.0 mmol/L] or  120-minute glucose level >200 mg/dL [11.1 mmol/L]16); concurrent therapy with insulin; use of antidiabetic agents, glucocorticoids, testosterone, megestrol acetate,  growth hormone, estrogen, or anabolic steroids; concurrent substance abuse; opportunistic infection within the past 6 weeks; or pregnancy. In addition, patients discontinued the study if they changed their antiviral regimen for any reason during the 3-month study period (n = 1).


All patients gave written informed consent and the study was approved by the Human Research Committee of Massachusetts General Hospital and the Committee on Research of Human Subjects of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Eligible patients were randomly assigned to receive either metformin (500 mg orally twice per day) or an identical placebo for 3 months. Randomization was stratified by sex and age (<40 years or 40 years) and assigned in blocks of 4 based on randomly generated numbers. Randomization was performed by the Massachusetts General Hospital pharmacy. All investigators and patients were blinded to drug assignment.

 Each patient completed a standard 75-g OGTT following a 12-hour overnight fast on the day of randomization and at 3-month follow-up.16 Serum insulin and glucose levels were measured at 0, 30, 60, 90, and 120 minutes following the OGTT. In addition, fasting total cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C), low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C), triglycerides, lactate, aspartate aminotransferase, HIV viral load, and CD4 cell count measurements were determined at baseline and 3-month follow-up. Patients underwent a physical examination and  brief intercurrent medical history to assess potential adverse effects at baseline and at  the 1-month and 3-month visits. Patients were instructed to return unused study  medication, and compliance was determined from the difference between expected  and actual pills used. Height, weight, blood pressure, waist circumference (at the  umbilicus), and hip circumference were measured at each visit. In addition, patients  completed a 4-day food record prior to the baseline and 3-month visits. Diet records were reviewed with each patient by a trained dietitian and analyzed using a computerized nutrition software program (NDS Version 2.92-NDS-R, Regents of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis) to determine the mean daily energy intake.

Cross-sectional abdominal computed tomography scans were performed as described by Borkan et al17 at baseline and 3-month follow-up to assess distribution of  subcutaneous and visceral abdominal fat (SAT and VAT, respectively). A lateral  scout image was obtained to identify the level of the L4 pedicle, which served as the  landmark for the 1-cm single-slice image. The primary outcome measure for efficacy was insulin area under the curve (AUC), calculated from the post-OGTT insulin measurements. Secondary end points included glucose AUC, lipid levels, body mass index (BMI), waist-hip ratio, VAT-SAT ratio, and blood pressure. Development of  lactic acidosis was the primary safety outcome measure.


Eighty-three patients were screened for the study, 33 met the inclusion criteria, and 26 (6 women and 20 men) were randomized and received treatment with metformin (n = 14) or placebo (n = 12) (Figure 1). One patient switched antiviral regimens during  the study and discontinued the protocol. The remaining 25 patients completed the 3-month protocol. No patient dropped out or was lost to follow-up. Compliance with study medication based on pill count was not different between metformin and placebo groups (97% vs 93%, respectively; P = .12).

 Baseline clinical characteristics of the patients in each treatment group are presented in Table 1 and Table 2. The groups were similar in all characteristics with the exception of lactate level; patients randomized to receive metformin had higher lactate levels at baseline (P = .002). All patients were taking at least 1 nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor (NRTI), and 22 of 25 patients were receiving a regimen containing a protease inhibitor (PI). All but 2 patients were receiving combination  antiretroviral therapy, defined as either 2 NRTIs and at least 1 PI or nonnucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor (NNRTI) or a combination containing at least 1 NRTI, 1  PI, and 1 NNRTI. One patient was receiving therapy with 2 NRTIs and 1 was receiving an NRTI and 2 PIs. Table 3 provides individual patient data on the most commonly used concomitant medications.

Metformin therapy was associated with significant reductions in insulin levels and insulin AUC at 120 minutes after OGTT compared with placebo (insulin AUC, -2930 [912] vs -414 [432] µIU/mL [-20,349 {6334} vs -2875 {3000} pmol/L]; P = .01) (Figure 2A). The decline in insulin AUC represents an average decrease of 20% from pretreatment levels in metformin-treated patients. There was no significant effect of treatment on fasting glucose or insulin levels or 120-minute OGTT glucose levels or glucose AUC (Figure 2B). However, mean changes in 120-minute OGTT glucose levels and glucose AUC were both increased in the placebo group and decreased in the metformin group (Table 2). Similarly, fasting insulin levels decreased 14% in the metformin group but did not change in the placebo group.

Patients treated with metformin vs placebo, respectively, demonstrated significant weight loss (-1.3 [0.6] vs 1.1 [0.4] kg; P = .005) (Figure 2C), reduced waist circumference (-1.1 [0.6] vs 1.1 [0.5] cm; P = .02), and decreased diastolic blood pressure (-5 [4] vs 5 [2] mm Hg; P = .009) (Figure 2D). Visceral abdominal fat decreased in metformin vs placebo patients (-1115 [819] vs 1191 [699] mm2; P =  .08). Subcutaneous abdominal fat decreased in proportion to VAT and no change was seen in VAT-SAT ratio in response to metformin treatment.

There was no significant effect of treatment on waist-hip ratio, systolic blood pressure, energy intake, CD4 cell count, HIV viral load, aspartate aminotransferase, total cholesterol, HDL-C, LDL-C, or triglycerides, although triglyceride levels tended to increase more in the placebo group.

Metformin was well tolerated. No patient discontinued the study because of adverse effects, and no patient developed lactic acidosis. Nine metformin patients (64%)  complained of mild-to-moderate diarrhea or an increase in stool frequency from preexisting diarrhea, whereas 3 (27%) of 11 placebo patients experienced new or worsening diarrhea. Most patients (5 of 9 randomized to metformin and 2 of 3 randomized to placebo) had resolution of new or increased diarrhea within 4 weeks of  starting therapy. Two patients receiving metformin and 1 receiving placebo complained of gas and/or bloating. There was no increase in lactate level associated with metformin therapy and both groups had mild decreases in lactate levels at 3 months.


 In this study, we demonstrate that low-dosage metformin reduces insulin resistance and improves related clinical parameters in HIV-infected patients with lipodystrophy and abnormal glucose homeostasis. Compared with placebo, treatment with metformin resulted in significant decreases in insulin AUC, BMI, and diastolic blood pressure. Our data suggest that metformin is well tolerated and is not associated with increased lactate levels or liver dysfunction in this population.

 To our knowledge, this is the first report of a randomized placebo-controlled trial of an insulin-sensitizing agent for treatment of insulin resistance associated with HIV lipodystrophy syndrome. Walli et al18 reported on use of troglitazone in a small, nonrandomized study. Potential liver dysfunction with this agent prevented its use in  the current study. In contrast, Saint-Marc and Touraine19 demonstrated a beneficialeffect of metformin (850 mg orally 3 times per day) in a open-label, non-placebo-controlled study among HIV-infected patients with insulin resistance and central adiposity. Metformin was associated with decreased fasting insulin levels, insulin response to OGTT, weight, and VAT after 2 months of therapy.19 Two patients dropped out of that study because of gastrointestinal disorders, including severe diarrhea and abdominal cramps, and the study did not report lactate levels or other safety parameters. In contrast, we used a lower dosage of metformin in a randomized,placebo-controlled, double-blind study. No data on the safety of metformin in this population were available at the initiation of this study, so assessment of safety and tolerability was an important aim of the study.

Our data suggest that metformin is safe and well tolerated in HIV-infected patients with lipodystrophy syndrome at the dosages used in this study. Mild and often transient gastrointestinal symptoms were common, but in no case were severe enough to result in discontinuation of the study. Lactate levels and liver function tests remained stable. Metformin administration is associated with a small risk of lactic acidosis in non-HIV-infected patients.20 Recently, concern has arisen regarding reports of increased lactate levels in some HIV-infected patients treated with NRTIs because of a potential mitochondrial toxicity syndrome resulting from inhibition of DNA polymerase  from NRTIs.21 All patients in this study were receiving  concomitant NRTIs; therefore, the absence of a significant effect on lactate levels  provides some reassurance that low-dosage metformin can be used safely in this population. However, our results must be interpreted with caution since our sample  size was small and strict eligibility criteria precluded participation of patients with known significant liver or kidney disease. Our results cannot be extrapolated to the  general population of HIV-infected patients with lipodystrophy syndrome, in whom  more severe liver disease may be seen.

Baseline CD4 cell counts were relatively high in our study patients, possibly owing to the potent combination antiretroviral therapy received by the majority of patients.  These patients represent the population most at risk for lipodystrophy, in contrast with those with more advanced immunodeficiency. CD4 cell count decreased and HIV viral load increased slightly in metformin patients, but not significantly. Our data suggest that metformin does not reduce immunologic function or adversely affect viral load in persons with HIV lipodystrophy syndrome. Investigation of higher dosages of metformin will be necessary to further determine the safety of metformin in HIV-infected persons with lipodystrophy syndrome.

In this study, 500 mg of metformin twice per day resulted in a 20% reduction in insulin AUC, as well as significant reductions in weight and diastolic blood pressure

The effects of metformin on glucose AUC were less significant, consistent with prior  studies that demonstrated greater effects of metformin on insulin levels than on  glucose levels in non-HIV-infected, nondiabetic patients.22 At baseline, our study  patients were moderately overweight and significantly hyperinsulinemic, with an increased waist-hip ratio. Among non-HIV-infected patients, increased BMI,hyperinsulinemia, and diastolic hypertension are known independent predictors of  CAD.14, 23, 24 Pyorala et al14 demonstrated that insulin response to OGTT was an independent risk for CAD death or nonfatal myocardial infarction. In patients with HIV lipodystrophy syndrome, reduction of hyperinsulinemia, weight, and blood pressure by  metformin results in an improved CAD risk profile.

  In contrast with the reduction in insulin levels, lipid levels did not change significantly in this study, although there was a tendency toward stabilization of  triglyceride levels in the metformin-treated group. Larger dosages of metformin and alonger duration of therapy may be necessary to reduce lipid concentrations inpatients with dyslipidemia and HIV lipodystrophy. In addition, we did not assess insulin sensitivity directly using an insulin clamp, but our data, which demonstrate a reduction in insulin AUC and insulin levels 120 minutes after OGTT, suggest an overall improvement in insulin sensitivity.25 Further studies are necessary to assessdirectly the effects of metformin on insulin sensitivity in patients with HIVlipodystrophy syndrome.

 We demonstrate that VAT decreased by 6% in the metformin group and increased by 8% in the placebo group. In contrast with the study by Saint-Marc and Touraine,19 which demonstrated a preferential reduction of VAT, our study showed a proportional reduction of SAT and VAT. A number of explanations are possible for this differencewith the prior study, including dosage used (lower in our study) and study design  (randomized and double-blind vs open-label). Reduction of VAT may be beneficial in patients with HIV lipodystrophy syndrome. Visceral abdominal fat is increased in patients with HIV lipodystrophy syndrome5 and is associated with increased CAD risk in non-HIV-infected, abdominally obese patients.26 Further studies are necessary to  determine definitively the effects and potential benefits of metformin administration on VAT and VAT-SAT ratio in HIV lipodystrophy syndrome.

Patients with HIV infection and evidence of fat redistribution are at high risk for metabolic abnormalities, including insulin resistance, that may increasec ardiovascular disease risk in this population. We demonstrate that relatively low-dosage metformin is safe and generally well tolerated in a pilot study of HIV-infected patients with fat redistribution and abnormal glucose homeostasis. Metformin substantially improves weight, diastolic blood pressure, and hyperinsulinemia. Further long-term investigation is necessary to determine the benefits of insulin-sensitizing agents, including metformin, in the treatment of insulin resistance and fat redistribution in HIV lipodystrophy syndrome.