Medication With Fish Oil May Cut Risk of Heart Attack or Stroke

A fish oil-derived medication may lessen the likelihood of a heart attack or stroke in patients who are at high risk despite taking statin therapy, a new study finds.

The medication, which contains high doses of the omega-3 fatty acid EPA, cut the risk of death due to cardiovascular causes, heart attack and stroke by 25 percent, the researchers found. And that was on top of the risk reduction brought about by cholesterol-lowering statins, according to the study, published Saturday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The patients in the new study all had elevated triglyceride levels, with nearly 71 percent having been diagnosed with atherosclerosis and/or already having had a heart attack or stroke and the rest with multiple risk factors, but no heart disease yet.

“I think we’ve stumbled onto something here in terms of a new class of drugs,” said Dr. Deepak Bhatt, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and executive director of interventional cardiovascular programs at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “Honestly, I think it’s as exciting as the statin era, when statins were first becoming available and we were learning about all the things that they can do. I view this as a similar sort of breakthrough.”

The drug, formally named icosapent ethyl — trade name Vascepa — contains a pure and stable form of EPA. Over-the-counter fish oil supplements contain some EPA along with other omega-3s, but in much lower doses than the prescription medication.

Bhatt, the lead author of the study, stressed the fact that icosapent ethyl differs significantly from OTC fish oil supplements. “What we studied isn’t some over-the-counter unregulated supplement,” Bhatt said. “It’s a prescription drug and very different from regular supplements. It’s true it’s derived from marine sources, but it’s highly purified through a complex chemical process and it’s a prescription drug.”

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SOURCE: NBC News, Linda Carroll and Lauren Dunn