Omega-3 may keep blindness at bay

New research suggests omega-3 fatty acids can help prevent retinopathy, which causes abnormal blood vessels to grow in the retina – the seeing part of the eye. Retinopathy is
an eye disease that can lead to blindness in premature babies and people with diabetes. Vision loss can be caused by these abnormal vessels detaching from the back of the eye. More than half of people who have had diabetes for more than 25 years will have retinopathy, and diabetes itself is becoming increasingly common.

Previous studies had shown that eye diseases, such as retinopathy, are slowed down in people who eat a lot of fish. This new study appears in the journal Science Translational Medicine, and is looking at the specifics of this protective mechanism. Metabolically, an enzyme called 5-lipoxygenase, or 5-LOX, converted omega-3 into an acid called 4-HDHA, which slowed abnormal blood vessel growth. Feeding mice a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids creates this sub-product (4-HDHA), which prevents disease formation.

The researchers also found the benefits of omega-3 are not affected by drugs such as aspirin or other painkillers, which is important as people with diabetes often take asprin to reduce their risk of heart disease. These findings provide new information on how omega-3s work, and this information makes them an even more powerful tool in preventing retinopathy. This could have a flow-on affect in decreasing the disease burden, and at a low cost, which would make it a very accessible treatment.

Clinical trials including omega-3 supplements in the treatment of advanced macular degeneration are expected to conclude in 2013, and the researchers are projecting that this may be followed by trials with milder disease. The possibility of preventing disease with this sort of treatment could mean early detection prevents progression to a severe blinding disease.