Omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent retinopathy in people with diabetes and in premature infants,
suggests new findings from a mouse model of the disease. A leading cause of blindness, retinopathy begins with a loss of blood vessels in the retina. The retina broadcasts alarm signals to spur new vessel growth, but the new vessels are malformed and over-abundant. In the end stage of retinopathy, the blood vessels pull the retina away from its supporting layer, detaching it so nerve signals can't be transmitted.
With collaborators at the National Eye Institute, Lois Smith, MD, PhD, and Kip Connor, PhD, of Children's Hospital Boston's Department of Ophthalmology, fed mice diets rich in either omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA) or omega-6 fatty acids. The omega-3-fed mice had less initial vessel loss in the retina than the omega-6-fed mice, and had nearly 50 percent less pathologic vessel growth afterward. Their retinas also had decreased production of the inflammatory cytokine TNF-alpha, whereas production increased on the omega-6-rich diet. Findings were published by Nature Medicine on June 24. "It appears that after initial loss, vessels regrew more quickly and efficiently in the omega-3-fed mice, increasing oxygen supply and dampening the inflammatory 'alarm' signals that lead to pathologic vessel growth," says Dr. Connor.
Omega-3 fatty acids, highly concentrated in the retina, are often lacking in Western diets. Since premature infants can't get omega-3 from their mothers, they are particularly deficient and at high risk for retinopathy and vision loss. Dr. Smith and colleagues will soon begin a clinical study of premature newborns receiving omega-3 supplementation as part of their IV nutrition, in collaboration with surgeon Mark Puder, MD [See related story, www.childrenshospital.org/views/august06/the_right_kind_of_oil.html.] The hope is that the infants' retinas will develop more normally. "We want to mimic what the infants would be getting in utero, right from the beginning," says Dr. Smith, the study's senior investigator. "Because once the retina detaches, there's little you can do."
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