Can Omega-3 Fatty Acids Combat COPD?

Jan. 27, 2015
$1.6 million NIH Grant Funds Research to Stop Smoking-Related Lung Disease

The National Institutes of Health awarded $1.6 million to Rochester researchers to study a group of compounds derived from omega-3 fatty acids and their ability to combat inflammation caused by cigarette smoking, which can lead to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD. COPD is the third leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The research team, led by Richard P. Phipps, Ph.D., and Patricia J. Sime, M.D., has early data showing that the compounds, called pro-resolving lipid mediators, have anti-inflammatory effects on human lung cells and can stop cigarette smoke-induced lung damage in models of the disease. They believe that additional studies, which will take place over the next four years, will demonstrate that these mediators can be used to prevent inflammation and speed the repair of lung injury from short and long-term cigarette smoke exposure, as well as other forms of lung injury.

“These exciting new compounds have the potential to be one of the first-ever disease modifying therapies against smoking-induced inflammatory lung disease, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema, the two conditions that characterize COPD,” said Phipps, professor of Environmental Medicine and Director of the Lung Biology and Disease Program at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.

Sime, chief of Pulmonary Diseases and Critical Care at UR Medicine’s Strong Memorial Hospital, added that the number of patients with COPD worldwide is increasing and there are no treatments to stop the disease from progressing. Current therapies, such as bronchodilators and steroids, can relieve symptoms, but are not cures. “Patients with COPD suffer greatly from symptoms of cough, shortness of breath, infective exacerbations and even death. Thus, there is a great unmet need for new therapies,” noted Sime, who treats patients with COPD.

Many studies have focused on the overall health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish like salmon and tuna, but few have zeroed in on their role in lung disease. Sime, Phipps and others have shown that when consumed, omega-3’s are broken down into multiple pro-resolving lipid mediators, which turn off pro-inflammatory signals and promote the destruction of inflammatory cells that take over lung tissue following smoking.

The goals of the new grant are to determine which pro-resolving lipid mediators are the most effective at dampening inflammation and the precise way in which they stamp it out in human lung cells and an experimental laboratory model of COPD. With this knowledge, researchers say they could develop a supplement, likely from fish or certain plants like algae, which is highly enriched in pro-resolving mediators.

Beyond patients with cigarette-induced COPD, a supplement could be used for the treatment of other inflammatory lung diseases, including biomass smoke-incited COPD. In the developing world, nearly 3 billion people cook food and heat their homes with traditional indoor cook stoves or open fires, which emit toxic smoke that also leads to COPD.

Researchers will also use an unobtrusive breathing device to collect and measure the amount of pro-resolving lipid mediators in the breath of healthy individuals and people with COPD. They’ll analyze who has high and low levels of these mediators – information that could guide treatment strategies and explain why some smokers never get lung disease.

The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health is funding the research. In addition to Sime and Phipps, Thomas Thatcher, Ph.D., research associate professor in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, will contribute to the research, as well as Charles Serhan, Ph.D., professor of Anesthesia at Harvard Medical School and the discoverer of many pro-resolving lipid mediators.