TYPE 2 diabetes affects about 1.5 million Australians and is one of the greatest challenges affecting our health care system. Its management has largely focused on lowering blood glucose levels, and as such, new diabetes medications have traditionally been evaluated against this benchmark.

However, in recent years, a number of new diabetes medications have been shown to confer varying cardiovascular and kidney benefits beyond what would be expected from lowering blood glucose alone. Perhaps most promising of these are the sodium glucose cotransporter 2 inhibitors (SGLT2 inhibitors). Because of this new evidence, these drugs are now recommended as second line therapy (after metformin) for patients with type 2 diabetes and coexisting cardiovascular or chronic kidney disease in major international guidelines (here, and here). However, as with any medication, safety considerations must be carefully assessed before considering their use with some groups of patients.

How they work and what they do

SGLT2 inhibitors selectively block the action of the sodium glucose cotransporter at one part of the filtration system of the kidney – the proximal tubule. This prevents glucose reabsorption into the bloodstream and leads directly to loss of glucose in the urine. Studies have shown that SGLT2 inhibitors lower blood glucose to a similar extent to other classes of diabetes medications.

However, these drugs have also been shown to have several other beneficial effects, including weight loss of about 2-3kg, lowering blood pressure, and reducing albuminuria (which is one of the earliest clinically detectable signs of kidney disease in people with diabetes).

What is the evidence for reducing the risk of cardiovascular and kidney disease?

There have been three large randomised trials reporting the effects of SGLT2 inhibitors on cardiovascular and kidney outcomes: EMPA-REG OUTCOME (empagliflozin), the CANVAS Program (canagliflozin), and DECLARE-TIMI 58 (dapagliflozin). These studies collectively enrolled almost 35 000 patients with type 2 diabetes at high cardiovascular risk. Across all three studies, SGLT2 inhibitors reduced the risk of hospitalisation for heart failure by approximately 30%. While these studies were not primarily designed to definitively determine the effects of SGLT2 inhibitors on the kidney, all three reported that these drugs reduce the risk of worsening kidney function, end-stage kidney disease or renal death (here, here, and here).

What are the potential safety issues and side effects?

The unique way that these medications work also accounts for some of their side effects. Volume loss can lead to dehydration and postural hypotension (a drop in blood pressure upon standing). Additionally, loss of glucose in the urine increases the risk of fungal genital infections threefold, although in most cases this does not require permanently stopping the medication.

One rare but serious and potentially life-threatening side effect is ketoacidosis, where the body’s metabolism stops using glucose as an energy source, resulting in a dangerous build-up of acid, known as ketones, in the bloodstream. This can occur despite only mildly elevated or normal blood glucose levels. People with relative insulin deficiency appear to be at increased risk, such as those with longstanding diabetes. Because ketoacidosis can occur in settings of biological stress or fasting such as illness or the peri-operative period, these drugs should be temporarily stopped when patients are fasting or not tolerating oral intake. While an increased risk of amputations and fractures has been reported with one medication in this class (canagliflozin), this has not been clearly demonstrated with other SGLT2 inhibitors (here, and here).

What are the practical considerations when prescribing these medications?

In Australia, two SGLT2 inhibitors — empagliflozin and dapagliflozin — are subsidised for use in type 2 diabetes on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) as streamlined authority items, with criteria regarding suboptimal blood glucose control and use with metformin. These agents are also available as combined preparations (with metformin or linagliptin).

The ability of SGLT2 inhibitors to reach their biological target within the kidney is dependent on kidney function. As such, they are not currently recommended for use in patients with significantly compromised kidney function, at least until further research determines whether these drugs are effective (and safe) in people with advanced kidney disease.

Patients on certain types of medication called diuretics, which already result in fluid loss (for example, frusemide) may require dose adjustment to reduce the risk of volume depletion. The importance of strict adherence to personal hygiene should be emphasised, along with counselling on sick-day management, such as withholding treatment in situations of prolonged fasting. It is currently recommended that SGLT2 inhibitors be withheld during an acute illness such as gastroenteritis, and for 3 days prior to a general anaesthetic to reduce the risk of ketoacidosis.


SGLT2 inhibitors are a promising new class of medication for the treatment of type 2 diabetes, which have been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular and kidney disease in large scale randomised trials. As is the case with all medications, careful patient selection and counselling is necessary to minimise the potential for side effects. It is important that we now apply this evidence appropriately to reduce the risk of serious complications for the large number of Australians living with type 2 diabetes.

Dr Tamara Young is an endocrinologist and general physician. She works clinically as an endocrinologist at rural locations including Lithgow Hospital and intermittently in Port Macquarie, and does outreach clinics to Bourke and Brewarrina. In 2018 she also began research at The George Institute for Global Health, and received a UPA scholarship to undertake a PhD in her areas of interest in nephrology and diabetes.

Dr Brendon Neuen is an NHMRC-supported PhD candidate at The George Institute for Global Health based at the University of Oxford, where he is also reading for an MSc in epidemiology and clinical trials as a Clarendon Scholar. His clinical and research interest lies at the intersection of diabetes, cardiovascular and kidney disease. He is currently involved in the analyses of both large scale clinical trials and observational studies using routinely collected health care information in Australia and the United Kingdom. He can be found on Twitter @brendonneuen



The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless that is so stated.

3 thoughts on “New diabetes medications bring cardiac and kidney benefits

  1. Greg the Physician says:

    I believe this article should have emphasised the risks of post-operative diabetic ketoacidosis in patients who do not cease an SGLT2 inhibitor for at least 72 hours prior to surgery and GA. Both the Australian Diabetes Society and the Australian & New Zealand College of Anaesthetists have issued warnings to their members regarding this issue. Those of us who undertake peri-operative management of diabetic inpatients are seeing this problem become more common as the use of SGLT2 inhibitors is encouraged by pharmaceutical marketing and I am aware of patients requiring ITU admission post-operatively in this situation. I also wonder why on earth anyone would prescribe such drugs for elderly diabetic patients in nursing homes who are already at risk of poor nutrition and UTIs, or for men with prostatomegaly and a significant residual urine volume post-void, who are at risk of urosepsis. The US FDA has issued a number of warnings, including for an increased risk of Fournier’s gangrene (necrotising fasciitis of the perineum). It also now looks as though the increased risk of amputation may apply across the whole class of SGLT2 inhibitors, at least in patients with peripheral arterial disease. Let’s continue to select oral hypoglycemic agents for our diabetic patients on individual risk-benefit analysis and think carefully before prescribing such drugs..

  2. Dr Robert Peers MBBS FACHP says:

    Might go back to 1939, Vince, when endocrinologist Jerome Conn, with dietetic help from Professor of Scientific Investigation Louis Newburgh, took about 20 type 2 diabetics, put them on a diet that probably included Newburgh’s whole-grains, and apparently cured them. They did this in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and published it in JAMA. Nobody read it.

  3. Vince Edghill Mb.ChB. MRCP, and T2DM says:

    So we are advised to eat Carbohydrates 3 times a day, producing lots of glucose, WHICH WE DO NOT HANDLE WELL. Then take a drug to make us pee the sugar out. Sometimes many times a night. Sorry you clever folks, you have the horse before the cart. And have you ever seen the general diabetic diets in major teaching hospitals ?
    Scary. And nutritionists get paid for doing them…
    We certainly have a long way to go. Or actually GO BACK, to the dietary advice which worked till Banting et al came along.
    But I agree we have to learn to prevent our vascular diseases from killing us. I wish I knew how, and I doubt you know either. But great that you are at least trying. Just try not to let money get in the way. That being the finale of the drug companies. Cynic that I am.
    At least you have Metformin right.

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