The answers are no and yes.
There is still no reason to take over the counter fish oil supplements.
In fact, a study published Saturday found that fish oil supplementation (1 g per day as a fish-oil capsule containing 840 mg of n−3 fatty acids, including 460 mg of eicosapentaenoic acid [EPA] and 380 mg of docosahexaenoic acid [DHA]
did not result in a lower incidence than placebo of the primary end points of major cardiovascular events (a composite of myocardial infarction, stroke, or death from cardiovascular causes) and invasive cancer of any type.
However, another study published Saturday (REDUCE-IT) and presented at the annual American Heart Association Scientific Sessions to great fanfare found that an ethyl-ester formulation (icosapent ethyl) of eicosapentanoic acid (EPA, one of the two main marine n-3 fish oils) reduced major cardiovascular events by 25% in comparison to placebo.
When I wrote about Icosapent ethyl (brand name Vascepa) in a previous blog post in 2015 there was no data supporting its use:
A fish oil preparation, VASCEPA, available only by prescription, was approved by the FDA in 2012.
Like the first prescription fish oil available in the US, Lovaza, VASCEPA is only approved by the FDA for treatment of very high triglycerides(>500 mg/dl).
This is a very small market compared to the millions of individuals taking fish oil thinking that it is preventing heart disease.
The company that makes Vascepa (Amrin;$AMRN)would also like to have physicians prescribe it to their patients who have mildly or moderatelyelevated triglycerides between 200 and 500 which some estimate as up to 1/3 of the population.
The company has a study that shows that Vascepa lowers triglycerides in patients with such mildly to moderately elevated triglycerides but the FDA did not approve it for that indication.
Given the huge numbers of patients with trigs slightly above normal, before approving an expensive new drug, the FDA thought, it would be nice to know that the drug is actually helping prevent heart attacks and strokes or prolonging life.
After all, we don’t really care about high triglycerides unless they are causing problems and we don’t care about lowering them unless we can show we are reducing the frequency of those problems.
Data do not exist to say that lowering triglycerides in the mild to moderate range by any drug lowers heart attack risk.
In the past if a company promoted their drug for off-label usage they could be fined by the FDA but Amarin went to court and obtained the right to promote Vascepa to physicians for triglycerides between 200 and 500.
Consequently, you may find your doctor prescribing this drug to you. If you do, I suggest you ask him if he recently had a free lunch or dinner provided by Amarin, has stock in the company (Vascepa is the sole drug made by Amarin and its stock price fluctuates wildly depending on sales and news about Vascepa) or gives talks for Amarin.
If he answers no to all of the above then, hopefully, your triglycerides are over 500.
And although elevated triglycerides confer an elevated CV risk nearly all prior trials evaluating different kinds of triglyceride-lowering therapies, including extended-release niacin, fibrates, cholesteryl ester transfer protein inhibitors, and omega-3 fatty acids have failed to show reductions in cardiovascular events
REDUCE-IT, Amarin trumpeted widely in September (before the actual data was published) now provides impressive proof that it prevents cardiovascular disease. Has the skeptical cardiologist changed his mind about fish oil?
Vascepa Is Not Natural Fish Oil
Although Amarin’s marking material states “VASCEPA is obtained naturally from wild deep-water Pacific Ocean fish” the active ingredient is an ethyl ester form of eicosapentoic acid (EPA) which has been industrially processed and distilled and separated out from the other main omega-3 fatty acid in fish oil (DHA or docosohexanoieic acid).
Natural fish oil contains a balance of EPA and DHA combined with triacylglycerols (TAGS).
So even if the REDUCE-IT trial results can be believed they do not support the routine consumption of over the counter fish oil supplements for prevention of cardiovascular disease.
Does REDUCE-IT Prove The Benefit of Purified High Dose EPA?
REDUCE-IT was a large (8179 patients) randomized, double-blind placebo controlled trial
Eligible patients had a fasting triglyceride level of 150 to 499 mg per deciliter and a low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol level of 41 to 100 mg per deciliter and had been receiving a stable dose of a statin for at least 4 weeks. In 2013 the protocol was changed and required a triglyceride level>200 mg/dl.
Participants were randomized to icosapent ethyl (2 g twice daily with food [total daily dose, 4 g]) or a placebo that contained mineral oil to mimic the color and consistency of icosapent ethyl and were followed for a median of 4.9 years. A primary end-point event occurred in 17.2% of the patients in the icosapent ethyl group, as compared with 22.0% of the patients in the placebo group.
More importantly, the hard end-points of CV death, nonfatal stroke and heart attack were also significantly lower in the Vascepa arm compared to the “placebo” arm.
These results are almost unbelievably good and they are far better than one would have predicted given only a 17% reduction in triglycerides.
This makes me strongly consider prescribing Vascepa (something I heretofore have never done) to my higher risk patients with triglycerides over 200 after we’ve addressed lifestyle and dietary contributors.
Perhaps the high dose of EPA (4 grams versus the 1 gram utilized in most trials) is beneficial in stabilizing cell membranes, reducing inflammation and thrombotic events as experimental data has suggested.
Lingering Concerns About The Study
Despite these great results I have some concerns:
- The placebo contained mineral oil which may not have been neutral in its effects. In fact, the placebo arm had a significant rise in the LDL cholesterol.
- Enrolled patients were predominantly male and white. No benefit was seen in women.
- Higher rates of serious bleeding were noted in patients taking Vascepa
- Atrial fibrillation developed significantly more often in Vascepa patients (3.1%) versus the mineral oil patients (2.1%)
Finally, the trial was sponsored by Amarin Pharma. This is an aggressive company that I don’t trust. The steering committee consisted of academic physicians (see the Supplementary Appendix), and representatives of the sponsor developed the protocol, and were responsible for the conduct and oversight of the study, as well as the interpretation of the data. The sponsor was responsible for the collection and management of the data. All the data analyses were performed by the sponsor,
After i wrote my negative piece on Vascepa in 2015 a number of Amarin investors attacked me because Vascepa is the only product Amarin has and any news on the drug dramatically influences its stock price. Here is the price of Amarin stock in the last year.
The dramatic uptick in September corresponds to the company’s announcement of the topline results of REDUCE-IT. Since the actual results have been published and analyzed the stock has dropped 20%.
High Dose Purified and Esterified EPA-Yay or Nay?
I would love to see another trial of high dose EPA that wasn’t totally under the control of Amarin and such trials are in the pipeline.
Until then, I’ll consider prescribing Amarin’s pills to appropriate patients* who can afford it and who appear to have significant residual risk after statin therapy*.
But, I will continue to tell my patients to stop paying money for useless OTC fish oil supplements.
N.B.* Appropriate patients will fit the entry criteria for REDUCE-IT described below.
Patients could be enrolled if they were 45 years of age or older and had established cardiovascular disease or were 50 years of age or older and had diabetes mellitus and at least one additional risk factor. Eligible patients had a fasting triglyceride level of 150 to 499 mg per deciliter (1.69 to 5.63 mmol per liter) and a low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol level of 41 to 100 mg per deciliter (1.06 to 2.59 mmol per liter) and had been receiving a stable dose of a statin for at least 4 weeks;
So either secondary prevention (prior heart attack or stroke) or primary prevention in patients with diabetes and another risk factor.