Omega watch: Researchers develop new test to measure omega-3 fatty acids in blood

A spread of foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, including nuts, seeds, salmon and avocado

Instead of large and invasive blood draws, a new, routine blood test that measures omega-3 levels in the bloodstream promises to make it easier to support cardiovascular and cognitive health.

Researchers at McMaster and the University of Guelph have discovered a convenient new way to track levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the bloodstream, making it much easier to access information critical to cardiovascular and cognitive health that was previously hard to gather.

The human body can generate most of the fats it needs, but must obtain omega-3 fatty acids from dietary sources. Measuring how much gets into the blood is currently difficult and invasive, requiring a large blood draw.

A headshot of Philip Britz Mckibbin
Philip Britz-McKibbin

“Our test can be part of a routine blood test without any special requirements,” says lead author Philip Britz-McKibbin, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at McMaster.

The newly discovered biomarkers of the Omega-3 Index (O3I) will make it easier for researchers to study omega-3 fatty acid nutrition in support of population health, including vulnerable groups.

“By directly measuring only two specific biomarkers in a blood sample, we can rapidly assess the Omega-3 Index without time-consuming and costly sample workup protocols prior to analysis.”

Why we need Omega-3 fatty acids

In addition to increasing the risk of cardiovascular events, a lack of omega-3 fatty acids is associated with inflammation, cognitive impairment, depression, fetal neurodevelopment and premature birth.

Two key omega-3 fatty acids, called EPA (eicosatetraenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), can be derived only from certain sources, such as fish and seafood, enriched foods and supplements.

“In general, if you have an O3I below 4 per cent you may have a higher risk for a cardiovascular-related event. Conversely, individuals with an O3I above 8 per cent have a lower risk. But since O3I is a modifiable risk factor, you can change it through diet,” Britz-McKibbin says.

“The body’s response to omega-3 supplementation can vary significantly between individuals, with distinct health benefits reported for patients who consumed only EPA, only DHA, or a mixture.”

Access to regular screening

Existing tests to measure the Omega-3 Index have required drawing large volumes of blood and complicated laboratory work to analyze their omega-3 fatty acid content. As a result, most clinicians do not routinely measure O3I.

The new method opens the door to regular screening, which can help clinicians and patients understand how much supplementation is necessary.

“Testing for the O3I is a complicated procedure so it’s not routinely available for patient screening, despite the popular use of fish oil supplements, and promising clinical evidence of the many health benefits from optimal omega-3 fatty acid nutrition,” says Britz-Mckibbin.

“This should make it much more convenient to do routine testing since dosage levels and product formulations differ widely in their exact omega-3 fatty acid composition.”

The study, published in the Journal of Lipid Research, is co-authored by Stuart Phillips, a professor of kinesiology at McMaster and David Mutch, a professor of human health and nutrition at the University of Guelph.

Participants in the study were given between 3 and 5 grams of fish oil, EPA or DHA supplements per day. Researchers performed lipid profiling to isolate specific O31 biomarkers from among hundreds of detectable circulating lipids.

Researchers also plan to identify a surrogate biomarker of the O3I with a urine-based test, which would eliminate the need to draw blood entirely.

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