For the first time, researchers at the University of California, San Diego have peered inside a living mouse cell and mapped the processes that power the celebrated health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. More profoundly, they say their findings suggest it may be possible to manipulate these processes to short-circuit inflammation before it begins, or at least help to resolve inflammation before it becomes detrimental.
The work is published in the May 14, 2012 online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The therapeutic benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, which are abundant in certain fish oils, have long been known, dating back to at least the 1950s, when cod liver oil was found to be effective in treating ailments like eczema and arthritis. In the 1980s, scientists reported that Eskimos eating a fish-rich diet enjoyed better coronary health than counterparts consuming mainland foods.
"There have been tons of epidemiological studies linking health benefits to omega-3 oils, but not a lot of deep science," said Edward A. Dennis, PhD, distinguished professor of pharmacology, chemistry and biochemistry. "This is the first comprehensive study of what fish oils actually do inside a cell."
The scientists fed mouse macrophages a kind of white blood cell three different kinds of fatty acid: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (AA). EPA and DHA are major polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids, essential to a broad range of cellular and bodily functions, and the primary ingredient in commercial fish oil dietary supplements. AA is a polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acid prevalent in the human diet.
In high levels, fatty acids are toxic, so cells typically sequester them as phospholipids in their membranes. When stimulated, however, the fatty acids may be released, provoking a cascading inflammatory response. Acute or limited inflammation is, of course,
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University of California - San Diego