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A panel of scientific advisers to the Food and Drug Administration has unanimously voted in favor of wider use of a prescription fish oil pill. The medication can help reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: It's long been known that omega-3 fatty acids, which are abundant in oily fish such as salmon, are good for heart health. What's much newer to the scene is a fish oil pill approved by the FDA. Cardiologist Peter Wilson of Emory University has reviewed the evidence behind the drug. It's called Vascepa.
PETER WILSON: This is a prescription product at high concentration.
AUBREY: This purified fish oil, which is extracted from sardines and anchovies, is currently recommended for a narrow group of people with very elevated triglyceride levels. But Wilson was part of a panel of advisers that was asked to weigh in on whether the fish oil pill could also be beneficial for a much wider group of adults, including people who've already had a heart attack or stroke, and people with Type 2 diabetes, who also have another risk factor such as high blood pressure.
WILSON: The panel felt very strongly that this fish oil product, taken in addition to statins, reduced cardiovascular disease.
AUBREY: Statin medications work well to reduce LDL cholesterol, the so-called bad cholesterol. Statins can also lower triglycerides to some extent. But fish oil can have an added effect in lowering triglycerides further. Some prior studies of fish oil supplements that you can buy off the shelf at the grocery store or drugstore have pointed to benefits.
WILSON: The supplements at lower doses have always been of interest. The difference in these most recent studies is using much higher concentrations in the pills.
AUBREY: In other words, smaller doses may help a little. But Wilson says, to get a significant reduction in risk, higher doses are more helpful. The evidence comes from a clinical trial sponsored by the company that manufactures Vascepa. It includes people who already had a heart attack or stroke. Wilson has no financial ties to the company.
WILSON: The trials showed convincing evidence for reduction of heart attack, stroke and cardiac-related death.
AUBREY: About a 25% reduction compared to a placebo group. So could people who want the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids just aim to eat more fish, especially healthy people who aren't at high risk of heart disease? Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the nutrition school at Tufts University, says yes.
DARIUSH MOZAFFARIAN: For the general population, I really recommend people eat fish or seafood at least, you know, one or two servings per week.
AUBREY: But he says, in order to lower triglycerides, more is needed. The prescription pill is dosed at four grams a day, which is the equivalent of eating - are you ready for this? - eight to 10 servings of salmon every day.
MOZAFFARIAN: That's pretty hard to do - you know, almost impossible.
AUBREY: The FDA typically follows the advice of its advisory panels and is expected to decide on expanded-use approval by the end of the year. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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