Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and the preterm infant: a case study in developmentally sensitive nutrient needs in the United States1–4

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Abstract

The vast majority of infant formulas in the United States contain the long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3) and arachidonic acid (20:4n-6), which were first permitted by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2001. As a scientific case study, preclinical animal studies of these nutrients definitively influenced the design and interpretation of human clinical studies. Early studies were tied to the availability of test substances, and in hindsight suggest re-evaluation of the essential fatty acid concept in light of the totality of available evidence. Research in the 1950s established the essentiality of n-6 PUFAs for skin integrity; however, widespread recognition of the essentiality of n-3 PUFAs came decades later despite compelling evidence of their significance. Barriers to an understanding of the essentiality of n-3 PUFAs were as follows: 1) their role is in neural function, which is measured only with difficulty compared with skin lesions and growth faltering that are apparent for n-6 PUFAs; 2) the experimental use of vegetable oils as PUFA sources that contain the inefficiently used C18 PUFAs rather than the operative C20 and C22 PUFAs; 3) the shift from reliance on high-quality animal studies to define mechanisms that established the required nutrients in the first part of the 20th century to inherently challenging human studies. Advances in nutrition of premature infants require the best practices and opinions available, taking into account the totality of preclinical and clinical evidence.

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