Study of the Week: Omega-3 Fatty Acids Could Slow Pulmonary Fibrosis

Welcome to Study of the Week from Patient Worthy. In this segment, we select a study we posted about from the previous week that we think is of particular interest or importance and go more in-depth. In this story we will talk about the details of the study and explain why it’s important, who will be impacted, and more.

If you read our short form research stories and find yourself wanting to learn more, you’ve come to the right place.


This week’s study is…

Associations of plasma omega-3 fatty acids with progression and survival in pulmonary fibrosis

We previously published about this research in a story titled “Could Omega-3 Fatty Acids Slow Pulmonary Fibrosis Progression?” which can be found here. The study was originally published in the scientific journal Chest. You can read the abstract of the study here

This research was affiliated with the University of Virginia Health System.

What Happened?

Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis is a deadly lung disease that leads to progressive decline in lung function through the proliferation of scar tissue. Currently, this process is irreversible, with life expectancy after diagnosis averaging around four years. There is an urgent need to find therapies that could slow or halt progression of this disease in order to improve survival.

A group of UVA Health researchers decided to see if there was any association with omega-3 fatty acid blood levels and the progression of pulmonary fibrosis. They also decided to see if this could have an effect on how long a patient could survive without needing a lung transplant. The research team looked at data from a total of 300 patients. Eighty-eight percent of these patients had idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, in which a precise cause cannot be identified. The majority of the patients (74%) were men, who are more likely to develop this disease.

The scientists evaluated the omega-3 blood levels in these patients and found that higher levels were associated with superior CO2 exchange and extended survival times without the need for a transplant. This effect was present even among patients with a history of smoking or cardiovascular illness. The researchers concluded that higher omega-3 fatty acid blood levels could predict better clinical outcomes in the disease.

Some prior studies have suggested that omega-3 fatty acids may confer an array of beneficial effects, such as reducing the risk of blood clots, stroke, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Why Does it Matter?

With poor survival rates that are comparable to some of the most dangerous types of cancer, there is an urgent need for medical researchers to find interventions that can improve survival in pulmonary fibrosis.

“These findings were consistent whether you had a history of cardiovascular disease, which suggests this may be specific to pulmonary fibrosis…Our findings suggest omega-3 fatty acids might be a targetable risk factor in pulmonary fibrosis.”  – John Kim, MD, Pulmonary and Critical Care, UVA Health, University of Virginia School of Medicine

The encouraging results from this study could give scientists a new research path. In fact, the research team has already been thinking about next steps, with future studies aiming to understand how omega-3s could have such a beneficial impact:

“We need further research to determine if there are specific omega-3 fatty acids that may be beneficial and, if so, what are their underlying mechanisms…Similar to other chronic diseases, we hope to determine whether nutrition related interventions can have a positive impact on pulmonary fibrosis.” – Dr. Kim

The team hopes to eventually move into a clinical trial, which would investigate whether omega-3 supplements or related medications could in fact be a useful treatment for the disease. 

About Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis

Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis is a deadly, chronic, progressive lung disease which is characterized by lung tissue scarring, leading to a decline in lung function over time. The cause of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis is unknown. With that being said, there are a few risk factors that have been identified, such as smoking cigarettes, exposure to various dusts (metal, wood, stone, and coal dust), occupations related to farming, family history, and potentially certain viral infections. Symptoms include shortness of breath, a dry cough, a distinctive crackling sound detected with a stethoscope, oxygen deficiency in the blood, and clubbed digits. There are few treatment options that can have a significant impact on the progression of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Treatment may include certain medications, pulmonary rehabilitation, oxygen therapy, and lung transplant. Early intervention can make a major difference in outcomes; five-year survival rate is between 20 and 40 percent. To learn more about idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, click here.

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