The Persistent Problem of Cystic Fibrosis: Why Are People with This Disease Plagued by Lung Infections?

By Christensen, Damaris | Science News, January 26, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Persistent Problem of Cystic Fibrosis: Why Are People with This Disease Plagued by Lung Infections?


Christensen, Damaris, Science News


Breathing is one of those simple, natural acts that usually go unnoticed. Yet breathing rarely comes easily to people with cystic fibrosis. Thick, gooey mucus clogs the lungs of most people with the disease and serves as a breeding ground for bacteria. Chronic infections lead to respiratory failure--typically caused by the usually harm less bacterium called Pseudomonas aeruginosa--which kills most people with cystic fibrosis while they are in their 20s or early 30s. That suggests that either the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients are particularly hospitable to bacteria or normal defenses against infection are somehow weakened, says Brian J. Day of National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver.

In the United States, 30,000 people have cystic fibrosis. More than 12 years after researchers identified the mutated gene responsible for the disease (SN: 9/2/89, p. 149), scientists are still struggling to determine how its function relates to the pathology of cystic fibrosis.

Understanding exactly what goes wrong in people who have the mutation has been difficult in part because the normal protein from the gene seems to do different things in the different tissues affected by the disease and in part because it's hard to study what's happening on the surface of a person's lungs.

Using recent research findings, scientists are piecing together different ideas--some competing, some complementary--about why people with cystic fibrosis are so vulnerable to deadly lung infections. "The consensus is that people are finding a lot of functions for [the normal protein] that have been neglected," says Day. "The challenge is, can we link these definitely to the lung disease and pathology of cystic fibrosis?"

If so, researchers, physicians, and patients hope that this knowledge will stimulate the development of better therapies. However, the road ahead for cystic fibrosis patients may be--like taking a breath--more complicated than it sounds.

IS SALT THE SOLUTION? Most researchers trying to explain the symptoms of cystic fibrosis have looked first at salt transport in and out of cells. Even before the gene was isolated, scientists speculated that the protein defective in cystic fibrosis somehow regulated the transport of ions across cell membranes. The due had been that unusually salty sweat is among the many symptoms of cystic fibrosis. Sure enough, researchers discovered, the protein made by the identified gene transports chloride ions, one of salt's two components, in and out of cells. Because the movement of sodium ions, salt's other component, is naturally linked to the transport of chloride, the protein mutated in cystic fibrosis regulates sodium transport indirectly.

How this defect in ions transport triggers the lung infections of cystic fibrosis is still hotly debated. Abnormalities in salt transport may underlie the thick mucus and difficulties in clearing mucus from people's lungs. Recently, researchers have suspected that the normal protein, called cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR), may also directly or indirectly regulate the passage of various other molecules into and out of cells.

In a variation on this idea, Richard C. Boucher of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine suggests that the initial malfunction in cystic fibrosis disturbs regulation of the fluid lining the respiratory tract. This in turn prevents normal clearance of bacteria from the lungs.

As a person breathes in, air flows into a branching series of tubes in the lungs. In each person, the cells lining these tiny airways have a combined surface area about the size of a tennis court. This surface is covered with a thin--about 7-micron--layer of watery liquid, upon which rests a layer of mucus about 20 microns thick. The normally sticky mucus traps bacteria entering the lung with each breath. In people without lung disease, hundreds of tiny cilia on each cell beat in unison through the liquid layer to move the mucus along the lung surface to the back of the throat, where it's swallowed. …

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