Children who are born before their eyes have finished growing risk developing an eye disease called retinopathy. This disorder involves the loss of blood vessels in the eye, which means that the retina does not get enough oxygen.
“The lack of oxygen sets off alarm signals that spur new vessel growth, but these new vessels become deformed. Toward the end of the disease the retina can come loose, and when that happens, there’s very little you can do,” says Ann Hellström, eye professor at Sahgrenska Academy.
Each year in Sweden roughly 1,000 premature infants risk developing retinopathy that can lead to severely impaired vision and even blindness.
In the study, mice with retinopathy were fed food enriched with either omega-3 or omega-6.
Mice that ate omega-3 initially lost fewer blood vessels in their retinas than mice that ate omega-6, and they evinced only half as much abnormal vessel growth. Their retinas also showed lower inflammatory activity.
“After the initial loss of vessels, our studies indicate that the vessels grew back both more rapidly and more effectively in mice that were fed omega-3. This is due to an enhanced oxygen supply and a dampening of the inflammation alarm that otherwise can lead to the formation of abnormal vessels,” says research Chatarina Löfqvist.
Children who are born very prematurely or extremely prematurely have difficulty getting omega-3 from their mothers.
“We are now going to give omega-3 to premature newborns at Östra Hospital and to nursing mothers. We hope to be able to simulate what the infant should have received in the womb, so that the children’s retinas will then develop more normally,” says Professor Ann Hellström.
The same research team recently published another study showing that another substance can also protect against eye damage in premature babies. This substance is a protein called IGFBP-3, which is necessary for the development of vessels, nerves, the eye, the brain, muscles, bones, the liver, kidneys, lungs, and other organs. In that study children with retinopathy had lower levels of the protein compared with healthy children, which indicates that the protein prevents vessel loss and promotes normal vessel regeneration.
“Our study indicates that this protein and the growth factor that the protein regulates act independently to prevent retinopathy. We are now carrying out a Phase I study to see if preparations with these substances can protect against the development of retinopathy in prematurely born children,” says Chatarina Löfqvist.
Both studies are being carried out in collaboration with researchers at Harvard Medical School in the U.S.
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