New horizons in the treatment of cystic fibrosis


Alan W Cuthbert, Department of Medicine, University of Cambridge, Addenbrooke's Hospital, Hills Road, Cambridge CB2 2QQ, UK. E-mail:


Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a lethal, recessive, genetic disease affecting approximately 1 in 2500 live births among Caucasians. The CF gene codes for a cAMP/PKA-dependent, ATP-requiring, membrane chloride ion channel, generally found in the apical membranes of many secreting epithelia and known as CFTR (cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator). There are currently over 1700 known mutations affecting CFTR, many of which give rise to a disease phenotype. Around 75% of CF alleles contain the ΔF508 mutation in which a triplet codon has been lost, leading to a missing phenylalanine at position 508 in the protein. This altered protein fails to be trafficked to the correct location in the cell and is generally destroyed by the proteasome. The small amount that does reach the correct location functions poorly. Clearly the cohort of patients with at least one ΔF508 allele are a major target for therapeutic intervention. It is now over two decades since the CF gene was discovered and during this time the properties of CFTR have been intensely investigated. At long last there appears to be progress with the pharmaco-therapeutic approach. Ongoing clinical trials have produced fascinating results in which clinical benefit appears to have been achieved. To arrive at this point ingenious ways have been devised to screen very large chemical libraries for one of two properties: (i) agents promoting trafficking of mutant CFTR to, and insertion into the membrane, and known as correctors or (ii) agents which activate appropriately located mutant CFTR, known as potentiators. The best compounds emerging from these programmes are then used as chemical scaffolds to synthesize other compounds with appropriate pharmaceutical properties, hopefully with their pharmacological activity maintained or even enhanced. In summary, this approach attempts to make the mutant CFTR function in place of the real CFTR. A major function of CFTR in healthy airways is to maintain an adequate airway surface liquid (ASL) layer. In CF the position is further confounded since epithelial sodium channels (ENaC) are no longer regulated and transport salt and water out of the airways to exacerbate the lack of ASL. Thus an additional possibility for treatment of CF is to use agents that inhibit ENaC either alone or as adjuncts to CFTR correctors and/or potentiators. Yet a further way in which a pharmacological approach to CF can be considered is to recruit alternative chloride channels, such as calcium-activated chloride channel (CaCC), to act as surrogates for CFTR. A number of P2Y2 receptor agonists have been investigated that operate by increasing Ca2+i which in turn activates CaCC. Some of these compounds are currently in clinical trials. The knowledge base surrounding the structure and function of CFTR that has accumulated in the last 20 years is impressive. Translational research feeding from this is now yielding compounds that provide real prospects for a pharmacotherapy for this disease.

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