New research involving fish oil could mean better care for critically ill infants

Bodil Larsen is fishing for answers… and her prize fish is in the international spotlight.

The advanced practice dietitian with Capital Health’s Regional Nutrition and Food Services in Edmonton, Alberta was recognized at a U.S. conference in May for her research on the anti-inflammatory effects of intravenous fish oil in critically ill infants.

Larsen, who works in the neonatal and pediatric intensive care units at the Stollery Children’s Hospital, was chosen as one of 63 researchers from 14 countries to receive a New Investigator Award. She presented her work to more than 500 international delegates at the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids Conference in Kansas City, Missouri and had the distinction of receiving the Outstanding Presentation Award.

Her research, which wraps up in November, aims to improve surgical outcomes for critically ill infants. “We know that current practice is not always the best practice, but research is lagging,” explains Larsen. She hypothesized that giving babies a lipid (fat) emulsion containing fish oil intravenously before and after surgery would reduce swelling, fever and infection rates – ultimately decreasing length of hospital stay. Early results are promising. Infants who have been treated with the fish oil emulsion are showing a significant decrease in tumor-necrosis factor, which is a marker that circulates in the blood and can be used to measure inflammation. While indicators with both pre- and post-treatment are positive, they are especially pronounced in the pre-treatment group.

This is exciting not only for researchers, but for parents as well. “Their babies are so ill that they might not even survive so for them anything that can boost their babies’ chances of survival is a miracle,” says Larsen. Currently, the practice in North America is to administer soy bean oil emulsion to infants pre- and post-operation. Other studies involving fish oil have shown that this type of fat enhances visual acuity and brain development in children and can increase their readiness for school. Larsen’s goal is to make the substitution of fish oil for soy bean oil in infants the standard practice within two to three years.

“Change has been sweeping the world with regards to fish oil for the past several years,” says Larsen. “This is the logical next step.” Larsen’s study involves approximately 36 babies, 18 in the control group and 18 in the fish oil group. All were recruited at the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton, and all were critically ill and about to undergo cardiopulmonary bypass for open heart surgery. Fellow researchers working on the study include John Van Aerde, Ari Joffe, Catherine Field, Laki Goonewardene and Tom Clandinin.

Larsen has been a bedside dietitian for 17 years in the areas of neonatal and pediatric intensive care. Her passion for filling the research gap led her to pursue a PhD in critical care infant nutrition, and in experimental medicine at the University of Alberta. A mother of three grown children – one of whom spent three months as an infant in PICU – Larsen says that helping kids get better and go home to their families faster is the most rewarding part of her job.