Health & Medicine

Breakthrough discovery for cystic fibrosis treatment


Dan Baden in the Red Tide Study’s culture room. (Photo: UNCW/ Jamie Moncrief)

This story originally aired on PRI's Living on Earth. For more, listen to the audio above.

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After a decade of study, a team of scientists at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington has discovered tantalizing new information about the mysterious microorganism that causes red tide, a toxic algae bloom. Among the hundreds of findings is one that holds promise for people whose lives are cut in half by the disease cystic fibrosis.

The team's leader is Dan Baden, Director of Marine Science at the university. He says the Florida red tide dinoflagellate produces twelve different toxins which can cause severe bronchial constriction, which can lead to runny noses and wheezing, under worse conditions. Asthmatics are sometimes very sensitive to the effects of these inhaled toxins.

Baden's team found that the same organism that produces the toxins also produces an antitoxin. "The antitoxin itself, is known as brevenal," said Baden. "It promotes a series of physiologic effects known as mucociliary clearance."

Mucociliary clearance thins mucus and makes it more easily expulsed from the lung. This, says Baden, works as therapy for, "anything that has thick, ropey mucus that can’t be cleared from the lung. And that is cystic fibrosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases."

While it may take as long as ten years before it reaches patients, Baden says drugs derived from brevenal will be potent. "It is active at a concentration or a dose known as picograms -- ten to the minus 12th grams per dose. That is about a million times more potent than the current therapeutic agents for cystic fibrosis."

Baden hopes the drugs will move quickly through clinical trials and attract the attention of "Big Parma."

To read the full transcript of the interview with Baden and find out more about the red tide study, visit the Living on Earth website.


Hosted by Steve Curwood, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More about "Living on Earth."