Largest ever omega-3 study for early non alcoholic fatty liver disease

Our NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) has demonstrated that a highly purified component of fish oil, omega-3, can combat the damaging build up of liver fat in patients with the early stages of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Key facts

  • There is currently no licensed treatment for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), estimated to affect one in five people in the UK
  • Liver fat decreased in NAFLD study participants who received Omacor and whose tissues were enriched with the specific omega-3 fatty acid docosahexanoic acid (DHA) that is contained within Omacor. DHA is a concentrated form of omega-3 fatty acid that is naturally found in fish oil
  • The study lasted for between 15 and 18 months and recruited 100 participants, making it the largest and longest trial of omega-3 use for the early treatment of NAFLD

One in five affected, with no licensed treatment

There is currently no licensed treatment  for NAFLD, estimated to affect more than one in every five adults in the UK, with obesity being the main risk factor.

It sees fat  build up in the liver, causing inflammation, which left unmanaged leads to fibrosis (scarring), fibrosis with nodules (cirrhosis) and ultimately liver failure. NAFLD also increases risk of liver cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart attacks. 

Taking fat to reduce liver fat

The clinical trial, known by the acronym WELCOME*, was led by Professor Christopher Byrne and tested whether Omacor, a highly purified form of omega-3, reduces liver fat seen at an early stage of liver disease in NAFLD.

The trial involved 100 volunteer participants recruited from hospitals across the South of England, each visiting the Southampton NIHR Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Facility eight times.

They underwent a range of tests related to liver function, body composition, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Magnetic Resonance Imaging  (MRI)  was used to accurately estimate liver fat in participants at the beginning and end of the study.

At the end of the study, those taking Omacor who had more of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA in their tissues also had less liver fat, indicating that NAFLD patients with the early stages of liver disease (excess liver fat) could benefit from taking Omacor. 

Research into policy

The results from this study are informing the first guidelines from the National Institute of Care Excellence (NICE) on diagnosing and managing NAFLD in England and Wales, due to be published late in 2016.