Current Issue - 2006, Volume 1 Number 2 & 3


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A review article by Hooper and colleagues, released online in March 2006 in the BMJ, suggested that fish-derived (DHA and EPA) and plant-derived (alphalinolenic acid, ALA) omega-3 oils have no effect on heart disease or mortality rates.2 The reason this differing conclusion was reached is because this review included a study by Burr, the DART-2 study, which suggested that fish oil in fact increases cardiac death.11 If the DART-2 trial had been excluded, Hooper would have results similar to that of the others and showed that fish oil significantly reduced mortality by 17%. The methodology of the DART-2 trial was strongly criticized by many, including a report of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality of the United States government, prepared by the Turfts-New England Medical Centre.12 Patients on the fish-oil arm were either advised to eat more oily fish or else given fish oil capsules. Recruitment was spread out over 6 years, but was interrupted and ceased for 12 months due to funding shortage. DART-2 reported a follow-up of 3-9 years on 3,114 patients. However, assessment of compliance in the treatment arm with plasma EPA levels was carried out only once, 6 months after initiation of dietary advice to increase fish intake in the first phase of the trial, in 68 patients. Thus it is not clear whether the other 3,046 patients, especially those in the second phase, actually followed the prescribed treatment over the trial period.  The study suggested that patients on fish oil capsules, rather than those consuming fatty fish, had an adverse cardiovascular outcome. Given the recent withdrawal of Seven Seas cod liver oil capsules from the European market, the possibility of dioxin contamination of the fish oil capsules used in the Welsh study must be contemplated. Dart-2 also found that fruit intake is of no value in heart disease, again contrary to most other researchers. It is thus reasonable to give less emphasis to the results of DART-2, compared to the large number of patients studied in the other papers.


It is reasonable to conclude that the evidence thus far still supports the contention that fish derived omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, are good for heart patients. But this controversy tells us something about the medical research, and the acquisition and application of medical knowledge.

Being scientists, doctors try to perform studies as rigorously as possible with randomised, placebo-controlled trials and using tests of statistical significance. But since the studies are on humans, with all their individual differing habits and inconsistencies, different results are produced by different researchers. And so while medicine is a science, in that the trials are scientifically conducted, the interpretation of the results, and in particular its application for the individual patient, is very much an art. A good doctor, like the good artist, must spend much time, energy and effort sieving through the good from the not so good data before coming out with the correct picture. Only by keeping an unbiased, inquisitive mind can the evidence be reviewed to solve the problem at hand. Almost always, the balance of data will favour a particular stand. In this day when newspapers are full of medical articles, a family physician has to be educated, interested and inquisitive to be a source of accurate and relevant information for the patients.


  1. Kris-Etherton PM, Harris WS Appel LJ.  Fish consumption, fish oil, omega-3 fatty acids, and cardiovascular disease.  Circulation. 2002;106:2747-57 [PubMed]
  2. Hooper L, Thompson RL, Harrison RA, et al.  Risks and benefits of omega 3 fats for mortality, cardiovascular disease, and cancer:  systematic review. BMJ. 2006;332:752-60 [PubMed]
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  8. Bucher HC, Hengstler P, Schindler C, et al.  N-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in coronary heart disease: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Am J Med. 2002;112(4):298-304 [PubMed]
  9. Studer M, Briel M, Leimenstoll B, et al.  Effect of different antilipidemic agents and diets on mortality.  Arch Intern Med. 2005;165:725-30 [PubMed]
  10. DeFilippis AP, Sperling LS. Understanding omega-3’s. Am Heart J. 2006;151:564-70 [PubMed]
  11. Burr ML, Ashfield-Watt PAL, Dunstan FDJ, et al.  Lack of benefit of dietary advice to men with angina:  results of a controlled trial. Eur J Clinl Nutr. 2003;57:193-200 [PubMed]
  12. Wang C, Chung M, Lichtenstein A, et al.  Effects of omega-3 fatty acids on cardiovascular disease. Summary, Evidence Report/Technology Assessment: Number 94. AHRQ Publication Number 04-E009-1, March 2004. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. [HTML]


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