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The University of Southampton
Medicine

Improving the treatment of cardiovascular disease

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in foods such as oily fish and are known to help protect against heart disease. Our research on the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fatty acids has directly improved the treatment of cardiovascular disease. This has led to lower death rates in patients, reduced healthcare costs and improved clinical practice. Our findings have helped set UK and European guidelines on nutrition, and have been licensed in several countries, helping us generate income to continue to pursue our ground-breaking research.

Research Challenge

Omega-3 fatty acids are well-known as agents that reduce the risk of death and illness due to cardiovascular disease. The way in which they work, however, is less well understood. Many people think they work by stopping heart arrhythmias (inconsistent rate of heart beat) despite firm evidence of whether this is actually the case.

Context

Since 1995 our researchers have led the exploration of the impact of fatty acids on immunity and inflammation. Focusing on the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fatty acids, we have investigated whether these acids might act within hard, fatty deposits in blood vessels (called ‘advanced atherosclerotic plaques') to reduce illness and death due to cardiovascular disease.

Our solution

Firstly, we found that patients (awaiting surgery to have their plaques removed) who were given omega-3 fatty acids had a reduced chance of their plaques rupturing, and therefore had a reduced chance of having a stroke or a heart attack. We then found that this effect was due to the anti-inflammatory actions of omega-3 fatty acids within the plaques.

This work shows that omega-3 fatty acids may be a treatment for reducing the risk of death and illness due to cardiovascular disease, and provides further evidence that that omega-3 may be useful in treating a wide range of inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and asthma.

What was the impact?

Our research into the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fatty acids has not only had wide-ranging benefits for the treatment, mortality rate and economic costs of cardiovascular disease, but also to clinical practice, national guidelines and public health.

With cardiovascular disease costing the UK economy around £19bn each year, the economic savings of reducing mortality and morbidity from the disease are considerable.

Our published research has created extensive and regular national and international media coverage, contributing to public awareness about the science behind healthy eating and dietary guidelines.

The risk of plaque rupture and stroke is reduced with dietary omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids in diet

Key Publications

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