Study finds evidence that omega-3 fatty acid-derived molecules can improve chronic inflammation in obesity

July 31, 2019

Long chain omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish and fish oil, are a critical nutrient underrepresented in the typical western diet. For years, researchers have tried to understand how these molecules can be used to improve inflammation associated with obesity.

Dr. Raz Shaikh

Dr. Raz Shaikh

A new article, published in the featured spot of the August 2019 Journal of Leukocyte Biology, shares the latest findings on why metabolites made from omega-3 fatty acids are deficient in people living with obesity — and what that means for related inflammation.

Temporary inflammation is the body’s response to injury and infection. It signals the immune system to heal damaged tissue and fight off bacteria and viruses. Chronic inflammation, however, causes the destruction of vital tissues and contributes to the development of diabetes.

In people living with obesity, a high-calorie diet can cause fat cells to act as if they are under pathogenic attack, leading to chronic inflammation. Recently, researchers have discovered that metabolites synthesized from omega-3 fatty acids dramatically improve inflammation.

“These metabolites, known as specialized pro-resolving lipid mediators (SPMs) are in clinical development and are even emerging as dietary supplements,” says Raz Shaikh, PhD, associate professor of nutrition at the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. “Our lab wanted to know more, so we investigated how omega-3-derived SPMs control the production of antibodies made by B cells.”

Studying mouse models, the researchers learned that key metabolites made from omega-3s are deficient in obese mice. When the team administered the metabolites back into the mice for just four days, the production of specific antibodies recovered.

“In other words,” says Shaikh, “obesity can impair B cell populations, leading to excessive inflammation due to a loss of SPMs. We now have evidence of a link between omega-3 fatty acid-derived metabolites and a boost to immune function, pointing us toward future research that could ultimately benefit the health of obese populations.”

The researchers notably pointed out that the loss of omega-3 derived SPMs was sex-specific, as female mice and humans were protected from B cell-driven inflammation. Shaikh’s lab team is now pursuing more in-depth studies using mouse models and human tissues.

Contact the Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at

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