Local News

UNC Study: Saline Solution Safe Treatment For Cystic Fibrosis

Posted January 19, 2006

— Twenty-year-old Louisa Chrisco went to North Carolina State University to further her future, but cystic fibrosis has always threatened to cut that future short.

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Cystic fibrosis is a recessive genetic disorder, meaning both parents must carry the gene for it to be passed along to children. It is the leading potentially fatal genetic disease in the white population. Only about half of those with the disease live beyond the age of 30.

A simple cold could send Chrisco to the hospital just because she is more susceptible to bacterial infection in her lungs.

Chrisco's body produces unusually thick and sticky mucus that clogs her airways. To treat it, a nebulizer turns liquid medicine into a vapor that she then breathes.

But Chrisco also breathes in a mist of plain salt water that researchers say triggers coughing to clear away mucus.

"Who would have thought 20 years ago that just inhaling salt water would increase lung function?" Chrisco said.

Two teams of researchers, including one from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studied the effects of hypertonic saline treatments on test subjects with cystic fibrosis. They found that a simple saline solution helps patients breathe easier and, perhaps, live longer.

"That's right. It's something that's so simple, that is cheap, and really exceeded our own expectations -- even of how effective it would be," said Dr. Scott Donaldson, a pulmonologist at UNC.

Donaldson says the saline solution draws water to airway surfaces and helps break free the mucus.

At one time, researchers feared continuous saline treatments might cause other problems, but researchers say the three-year UNC study found no evidence for more inflamation or infection and proves the treatments are safe -- and a new starting point for future therapies.

"(It was well-tolerated from the standpoint of coughing, wheezing and acute symptoms with the therapy," Donaldson said.

Chrisco is thankful she is living in a time when cystic fibrosis research is progressing so well.

"Obviously, I want to be well, and I want to live as long as possible, and I want to live a good life," she said.

The two studies were done with adult patients. Dr. Donaldson believe future studies will focus on the effects of saline treatments on young children to see if they can prevent the progression of cystic fibrosis. He also believes future therapies will include a combination of medications along with the saline treatment.

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