W.Va. miner's treatment with DHA excites Martek

`A big deal for us,' says Columbia maker of one version of the omega-3 supplement

March 31, 2006|By TRICIA BISHOP | TRICIA BISHOP,SUN REPORTER

On a morning news show broadcast across the country yesterday, Dr. Julian E. Bailes told the story of how a West Virginia miner's life was saved. And no one was more interested in his choice of words than the staff at Columbia's Martek Biosciences.

Employees gathered before the television, tuned into CNN's American Morning, and hoped that three little letters would again spill from Bailes' lips. They didn't have to wait long.

"We began [treating him with] DHA, which is an essential fatty acid to rebuild the myelin, the white [brain] matter, which was lost. And his brain scans kept showing a progressive improvement," Bailes, chairman of the neurosurgery department at West Virginia University, said, according to a CNN transcript.

And Martek - which happens to make a commercialized, vegetarian version of the substance DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid - rejoiced.

"This is obviously a big deal for us," said Cassie France-Kelly, a spokeswoman for Martek, which advocates its DHA as a supplement for brain health. The benefits are "something that we've known about for a long time. It finally seems to be coming to the forefront."

Bailes was describing the first steps his team took in treating Randal McCloy Jr., who was the sole survivor rescued from the Sago Mine after an explosion Jan. 2 killed 12 of his co-workers.

Yesterday, after three months of rehabilitation and treatment, McCloy was able to go home.

Doctors had initially addressed his liver and heart failure and his collapsed lung when he was brought in after 41 hours buried in the mine, using technical medical means. But when it came time to treat McCloy's brain, they also turned to DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid typically found in fish.

Martek is hoping attention from McCloy's case, even though it didn't involve Martek's products, could help DHA gain greater recognition and acceptance. Staff spent the day yesterday calling media outlets, including CNN, offering informational packets about DHA and arranging for a doctor to go on camera to talk about its benefits.

To this point, Martek's DHA, which is derived from algae, has made its way into chicken feed for high-DHA eggs and Odwalla Soymilk, which is owned by the Coca-Cola Co. Three-quarters of the country's baby formula manufacturers put it in their products. A Baltimore couple makes a power bar for pregnant women with it. And last year, Kellogg Co. signed a 15-year deal with Martek to begin adding DHA to its goods, although no products have made it to market.

A study funded by the National Institutes of Health and released last year showed DHA could help prevent heart disease in children with high cholesterol. And 2005 dietary guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture claimed DHA may also help prevent cardiovascular disease.

Brain component

"There are many important functional roles for DHA in the brain," said Norman Salem Jr., chief of the Laboratory of Membrane Biochemistry and Biophysics at the National Institutes of Health.

DHA is naturally a major structural component of the brain, and Salem has studied its effect on animals, co-writing a paper recently that concluded the substance might lessen Alzheimer's-related dementia.

But he's not completely sold on a correlation between McCloy's recovery and his doctor's dispensation of DHA.

"We don't really know that this is going to be beneficial for these patients, but we think it's a safe treatment, and it might help," Salem said. "There's a reasonable rationale for" trying it.

In a telephone interview yesterday, Bailes, the West Virginia doctor who treated McCloy, was careful to qualify his belief in DHA.

"I'm not advocating it as a panacea, but I would say that I strongly believe that the role of essential fatty acids, including DHA, in some brain diseases and insults - in this case, carbon monoxide - has been underappreciated, and I think hopefully it played a significant role in Mr. McCloy's recovery, which ... far exceeded our expectations," Bailes said.

Doctors knew McCloy's gray matter had not been damaged in the accident, but that he had inhaled a significant amount of carbon monoxide, which injures the brain's white matter, responsible for communication between regions of the brain.

`Had to be rebuilt'

"There is no medication to reverse it and so our rationale was it had to be rebuilt. And what better way than with an essential fatty acid that is one of the main ingredients that it is made from in the first place?" said Bailes, who had become interested in DHA for effects it may have as an anti-inflammatory agent or in treating spinal disorders.

When McCloy was initially examined, there was no metabolic activity in the white matter that was injured. After treatment with DHA, there was, Bailes said. He could think of nothing else to explain it.

"I certainly don't know. I can't prove it. I don't know for sure," Bailes said. "I certainly felt it was safe. When we got him, he was in such dire straits, we had to try innovative treatment."

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