BACKGROUND AND OBJECTIVES: The epidemiological association between higher dietary n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) and lower prevalence of asthma, has led to interest in the role of early dietary modification in allergic disease prevention.

In this study we examined the effects of maternal n-3 (PUFA)-rich fish oil supplementation on cord blood (CB) IgE and cytokine levels in neonates at risk of developing allergic disease.

METHODS: In a randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, 83 atopic pregnant women received either fish oil capsules (n = 40) containing 3.7 g n-3 PUFA/day or placebo capsules (n = 43) from 20 weeks gestation until delivery. CB cytokine levels (IL-4, IL-5, IL-6, IL-10, IL-12, IL-13, TNF-alpha and IFN-gamma) and total IgE levels were measured and compared between the two groups.
Fatty acid composition of red cell membranes was analysed by gas chromatography and the relationships among PUFA, cytokine and IgE levels were examined.

RESULTS: Maternal fish oil supplementation resulted in a significant increase in n-3 PUFA levels (P < 0.001) in neonatal erythrocyte membranes.

Neonates whose mothers had fish oil supplementation had significantly lower plasma IL-13 (P < 0.05) compared to the control group.
There was also a significant inverse relationship between levels of n-3 PUFA in neonatal cell membranes and plasma IL-13. There was no difference in levels of IgE and the other cytokines measured.

CONCLUSIONS: This study provides preliminary evidence that increasing neonatal n-3 PUFA levels with maternal dietary supplementation can achieve subtle modification of neonatal cytokine levels.

Further assessment of immune function and clinical follow-up of these infants will help determine if there are any significant effects on postnatal immune development and expression of allergic disease.