Differences Seen in Lung Microbes of Cystic Fibrosis Patients

WEDNESDAY Sept. 26, 2012 -- Marked differences exist between the communities of bacteria in the lungs of healthy people and those with cystic fibrosis, according to a new study.

The findings could prove important in the treatment of cystic fibrosis and other lung diseases, according to the researchers at Stanford University and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. Cystic fibrosis is an inherited disease of the body's mucus glands.

"The lung is not a sterile organ," Dr. David Cornfield, a pulmonologist at Packard Children's and a professor of pediatrics in pulmonary medicine at the Stanford School of Medicine, said in a university news release. "This research confirmed a long-held suspicion that a forest of microbes exists in both healthy and diseased lungs."

The findings also suggest that microbes play a role in preserving lung health, Cornfield added.

He and his colleagues analyzed sputum (mucus coughed up from the lower airways) samples from 16 cystic fibrosis patients and nine healthy people. The researchers also analyzed tissue from the removed lungs of seven lung transplant patients -- three who had cystic fibrosis and four who had other lung diseases.

In general, healthy people had more diversity in their lung microbe communities than cystic fibrosis patients.

"I think the tendency toward decreased diversity can be metaphorically viewed as the same phenomenon that might happen in a rainforest," Cornfield said. "When the ecosystem of a rainforest is disturbed and one organism predominates, it undermines a carefully constructed balance and causes disturbances in the overall ecosystem. I think it's reasonable to assume something similar could happen in the lung microbiome, where pathogenic bacteria may out-compete organisms that may play a salutary, health-affirming role."

The researchers also found that healthy people had a larger percentage of two groups of bacteria, while cystic fibrosis patients had a larger percentage of another type of bacteria. Healthy people also had a larger proportion of bacteria that had never been grown in a lab.

The study was published Sept. 26 in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

More information

The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has more about cystic fibrosis.

Posted: September 2012


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