Cystic Fibrosis Research

Today, no cure exists for cystic fibrosis. But for decades, NHLBI has led and supported research on the disease, and those efforts have brought about more and better treatment options. Cystic fibrosis is caused by mutations, or changes, in the gene that affects the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) protein. When the protein is not working as it should, chloride (one of the elements that make up salt) becomes trapped in cells and forms thick, sticky mucus that clogs the airways in the lungs. Current research supported by the NHLBI focuses on understanding how changes in the CFTR protein lead to the development of cystic fibrosis and how genetic therapies and other treatments can improve the lives of people who have the condition.

NHLBI research that really made a difference

  • NHLBI’s lung program supported decades of research to understand the structure and function of a lung protein that is genetically changed by cystic fibrosis. This foundational work led to the industry discovery of ivacaftor, the first drug to treat the underlying cause of cystic fibrosis, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved in 2012.
  • NHLBI-supported clinical trials led to the approval of a medicine combination that improves lung function in about 90% of people who have cystic fibrosis.
  • As COVID-19 made in-person healthcare visits more challenging, an NHLBI-funded study developed an at-home diagnostic tool for measuring how well the lungs work. The software program uses a handheld breathing device and a newly created app called Breathe Easy. Patients blow into the device and communicate directly with their healthcare provider, who can monitor how well their lungs are working and adjust medicines as needed. Recently, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation purchased this device for every patient with cystic fibrosis in the United States — at least 20,000 people.

Current research funded by the NHLBI

Our Division of Lung Diseases and its Airway Biology and Disease Branch oversee much of the research on cystic fibrosis that we fund.

  • The NHLBI Catalyze Program is supporting the development of a biomarker-based platform that predicts lung function decline in patients with cystic fibrosis and a web-based application to inform physicians when a patient may require therapeutic interventions.
  • Investigators are studying CFTR protein folding and the use of modulators for patients with rare variant mutations not typically eligible for CF modulator therapy.
  • Researchers are combining non-invasive, radiation-free imaging and proteomic biomarkers to diagnose and monitor lung disease progression in kids with cystic fibrosis.

Current research on cystic fibrosis treatments

  • NHLBI-funded studies are testing whether a medicine to correct acid problems in the blood can also help reduce acid levels in the airways, which can then prevent or slow the development of cystic fibrosis.
  • Researchers are developing new medicines to help clear and target the thick mucus found in cystic fibrosis lungs and improve how well the lungs work. This can also help prevent inflammation and infection.
  • Investigators are studying the thiocyanate (-SCN) analog selenocyanate (-SeCN) as an alternative therapeutic for the treatment of CF lung pathogens that are difficult to treat with current antibiotics.

Current research on gene editing and cystic fibrosis

The NHLBI is supporting research on new genetic therapies to treat cystic fibrosis. For example, researchers are studying state-of-the-art gene delivery tools and technologies that may be better at delivering a corrected gene to lung cells. Researchers are also working on better methods to improve genetic therapies in the laboratory before moving to clinical trials.

Through the NIH Common Fund Somatic Cell Genome Editing (SCGE) Program, the NHLBI supports studies that explore new genetic therapy approaches to repair the CF gene, among others.

  • Studies using CRISPR gene editing tools will correct genes in the cells that line the airways. Using these tools could lead to new treatments for genetic and acquired lung disease.
  • A research program is developing combinatorial non-viral and viral CRISPR delivery for lung diseases. These studies focus on efficiently targeting gene editing tools to diseased lung cells in people who have cystic fibrosis.

To identify research barriers and challenges to using gene editing as a means to cure cystic fibrosis, the NHLBI participated in a joint workshop with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in 2018. The institute also participated in a 2020 virtual workshop to discuss challenges and opportunities that could be addressed in a potential second phase of the SCGE program.

NHLBI funds other studies of gene editing for cystic fibrosis as well.

  • The NHLBI supports research for new molecular therapies, including gene editing. Molecular therapies have helped restore the CFTR protein function for some but not all people with cystic fibrosis. New research uses airway cells and animal models to look for more ways to prevent and treat this condition.
  • To improve the delivery of gene editing tools and other therapeutics, researchers are developing more effective virus-inspired nanoparticles to penetrate mucus barriers in diseases with thick mucus like cystic fibrosis.

Find more NHLBI-funded studies on gene editing and cystic fibrosis at NIH RePORTER.

Current research on understanding the causes of cystic fibrosis

  • Scientists are using a cystic fibrosis animal model to study the origins of cystic fibrosis airway disease. Researchers hope this will help speed up the development of new treatments for early lung disease.
  • Another NHLBI-funded study uses an imaging method called optical coherence tomography (OCT) to take high-resolution images of the lungs and the nose. OCT can help researchers better understand how mucus is cleared and how cystic fibrosis affects this process.

Find more NHLBI-funded studies on the causes of cystic fibrosis at NIH RePORTER.

Cystic fibrosis research labs at the NHLBI

The Division of Intramural Research, which includes investigators from the Pulmonary Branch, is actively engaged in the study of cystic fibrosis.

Related cystic fibrosis programs

Explore more NHLBI research on cystic fibrosis

The sections above provide you with the highlights of NHLBI-supported research on cystic fibrosis. You can explore the full list of NHLBI-funded studies on the NIH RePORTER.

To find more studies:

  • Type your search words into the Quick Search box and press enter. 
  • Check Active Projects if you want current research.
  • Select the Agencies arrow, then the NIH arrow, then check NHLBI.

If you want to sort the projects by budget size from the biggest to the smallest click on the FY Total Cost by IC column heading.

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