A healthy intake of omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish and fish oil supplements, has been shown to protect against retinopathy, a leading cause of blindness, particularly among people with diabetes. Now researchers have clarified how fish oil helps.
Previously, researchers from Children’s Hospital Boston showed that mice fed a diet rich in omega-3s had less abnormal blood-vessel growth in the retina and less of an inflammatory response compared with mice fed omega-6 fatty acids, a less beneficial fatty acid. In the new study, published Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine, the researchers showed that omega-3s promote healthy blood-vessel growth and inhibit abnormal growth. They found that a specific small molecule in omega-3s was the key to the blood-vessel stabilization.
“Our new findings give us new information on how omega-3s work that makes them an even more promising option,” the lead author of the study, Dr. Lois Smith, said in a news release.
In addition, the study revealed that substances called COX enzymes, which are found in aspirin and other pain medications called NSAIDs, don’t interfere with the benefits of omega-3s. However, a drug used for asthma, called zileuton, does.
Given the fact that dietary supplements containing omega-3s are so inexpensive, particularly compared to treatments for retinopathy, the researchers said that their findings could have major implications for therapies aimed at preventing the condition.
“The cost of omega-3 supplementation is about $10 a month, versus up to $4,000 a month for anti-VEGF therapy,” said Lois Smith, who led the investigation. “Our new findings give us new information on how omega-3s work that makes them an even more promising option.”
Additionally, the team found that aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammation drugs do not interfere with the function of omega-3s, as has been suggested may be the case by earlier studies. This is important, as many individuals with type 2 diabetes take these medications to control their heart disease risk.
The ability of fish oil to prevent eye problems is of great interest. The US government is sponsoring a major clinical trial examining the benefits of omega-3 supplements in people with age-related macular degeneration. Smith is exploring the value of omega-3s for premature infants who are susceptible to an eye disease called retinopathy of prematurity.