Researchers from the University of Rochester find that compounds derived from omega-3 fatty acids—like those found in salmon or sardines—might be the key to helping the body fight lung infections, the new study suggests.
In a new study, the derivatives proved to be effective at clearing a type of bacteria called Nontypeable Haemophilus influenzae (NTHi), which often plagues people with inflammatory diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
COPD, which is most often caused by years of smoking, is characterized by inflammation and excessive mucus in the lungs that blocks airflow. Quitting smoking can slow the progress of COPD, but can’t halt the disease.
Anti-inflammatory drugs are the most common treatment, but, because they suppress the immune system, can put people with the disease at risk for secondary infections, most commonly NTHi bacterial infections.
“Our biggest concern with patients who have COPD is bacterial infections, which often put their lives at risk,” says Richard Phipps, professor of environmental medicine and director of the lung biology and disease program at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “If we can figure out how to predict who is likely to get an infection, physicians could put them on a preventative medication.”
Researchers tested the effectiveness of an inhalable omega-3 derivative to prevent NTHi lung infections in mice.
Omega-3 fatty acids, abundant in fish like sardines and salmon, are touted for their many health benefits. These superstars of the diet world are normally broken down to form molecules that help turn off inflammation after an infection or injury.
“We never really knew why diets high in omega fatty acids seemed good, but now we know it’s because they provide the precursors for molecules that help shut down excessive inflammation.” Phipps says.
Doctors used to believe that shutting down inflammation only required removing whatever caused it, for example pulling a thorn from your finger or, in this case, getting rid of bacteria. While that might work some of the time, researchers now know that shutting down inflammation is an active process that requires a certain class of anti-inflammatory molecules.
Unlike other anti-inflammatory drugs, the specialized agent used in the current study reduced inflammation in the lungs of mice without suppressing its ability to clear the bacteria—and could actually speed up the bacteria cleaning process.
The results are published in the Journal of Immunology. The researchers say that while they are encouraging, further study is needed to understand how the compounds can be used in humans. A similar compound in the form of an eye drop solution was recently tested in a clinical trial for dry eye syndrome and was well tolerated.