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Omega-3s: more evidence they prevent several forms of blindness

Wednesday, February 23, 2011 by: S. L. Baker, features writer
Tags: omega-3s, blindness, health news

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(NaturalNews) A study by a research team at Children's Hospital Boston, which was just published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, shows omega-3s help to prevent retinopathy -- an eye disease caused by out-of-control growth of tortuous, leaky blood vessels in the retina. Retinopathy is a leading cause of blindness affecting many premature infants and over 4 million adults in the U.S. with diabetes (and scientists predict that number will double over the next 15 years).

Over 7 million Americans have another disorder that leads to vision loss, called age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Cases of AMD, like retinopathy, are expected to skyrocket as the population ages. Just as retinopathy is caused by abnormal blood vessel growth, so is the most common form of AMD (known as "wet" AMD). And omega-3s appear to halt AMD, too.

That means increasing food sources of omega-3s in the diet (such as salmon and walnuts) and/or taking supplements of the essential fatty acid could dramatically reduce the loss of vision and related suffering in millions of people. It could also save an enormous amount of money in healthcare bills.

"The cost of omega-3 supplementation is about $10 a month, versus up to $4,000 a month for anti-VEGF therapy," ophthalmologist Lois Smith, MD, PhD, senior investigator on the study, said in a statement to the media. She was referring to drugs such as Macugen and Lucentis used in AMD and diabetic retinopathy. "Our new findings give us new information on how omega-3s work that makes them an even more promising option."

Omega-3 fatty acids are now known to be highly concentrated in the retina. Previous animal studies have shown omega-3s can prevent retinopathy. The new study reveals exactly how the essential fatty acids protect the eyes -- and it also strongly suggests that omega-3s may be beneficial in diabetes.

The researchers have documented that omega-3s have a direct effect on blood vessel growth (angiogenesis). In fact, omega-3s selectively promote the growth of healthy blood vessels and halt abnormal vessels from growing.

Dr. Smith and her colleagues were able to isolate the specific compound in omega-3s that produces these beneficial effects -- a metabolite of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, known as 4-HDHA -- and the enzyme that produces it (5-lipoxygenase, or 5-LOX). The study demonstrated that 5-LOX acts by activating the PPAR-gamma receptor, the same receptor targeted by Big Pharma drugs in the "glitazone" class such as Avandia, that are prescribed for people with type 2 diabetes to increase their sensitivity to insulin.

However, Avandia and related medications increase the risk for heart disease. So it appears that boosting omega-3 intake through diet or supplements might be a safer way to improve insulin sensitivity in patients with diabetes or pre-diabetes.

Dr. Smith is currently working with investigators at the National Eye Institute who are conducting an ongoing multi-center trial of omega-3 supplements in patients with AMD. The trial, dubbed AREDS2, will continue until 2013. An earlier retrospective study, (AREDS1) already found a higher intake of omega-3 containing fish was associated with a lower likelihood of AMD.

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