IMG 8850Courtney Petty presents her research at Ghost Train Brewing Co. as part of Discoveries in the Making Happy Hour.Take a deep breath. That was easy, right?

Now imagine taking a deep breath through a straw. Not so easy, is it?

Imagine attempting to complete daily tasks like washing dishes to walking the dog while breathing through that straw. To patients suffering from cystic fibrosis, or CF, this is the reality they face, and UAB doctoral student Courtney Petty’s research is working to change that reality.
Petty, a fifth-year graduate student in the Cell, Molecular, and Developmental Biology theme of the Graduate Biomedical Sciences program who recently defended her dissertation, has been interested in CF since childhood. One of her good friends had the disease and Petty saw firsthand the impact it could have on someone's life. When it came time to pursue her career in research, she was drawn to the CF field.

“Over my journey, I have come to know many people living with CF who have kept me motivated to keep working towards finding a cure for the disease,” she said.

Many people associate CF with a disease of the lungs. While the main symptoms of CF center around the lungs, it is a disease that affects many organs in the body. In the lungs of healthy patients, mucus lines the airway and maintains the consistency of water. This consistency is vital for proper mucus function. CF patients, on the other hand, have mucus with the consistency of honey. Imagine trying to breathe with honey clogging your lungs, and you can see why CF is such a devastating disease.

One in 2,500 live births will have CF, with over 75 percent of patients being diagnosed before age 2. The disease is inherited in an autosomal recessive pattern, meaning both parents have to be a carrier of the mutation for a child to develop the disease. That may not seem like a high likelihood, but in fact, 1 in 31 people are asymptomatic carriers, and, unless every person is genetically screened before they have children, treating the underlying mutation is nearly impossible.

IMG 8859Courtney Petty had the attendees practice breathing through a straw to help illustrate how a person with cystic fibrosis might feel when they breathe.The good news is that thanks to new therapeutics (many of which UAB has pioneered), CF patients are living longer. Before 2016, over 70 percent of patients with CF were under the age of 18. Now, over 50 percent of CF patients are adults, demonstrating the remarkable strides that have been made in CF treatments. However, with a longer life comes more complications. Older patients experience more debilitating decreases in lung function, with the average function being just over 60 percent for adults living with CF. This is where Petty's work plays a role.

Working in the lab of Dr. Steven Rowe, an MD renowned for his work in CF, Petty's research has focused on finding new therapeutics that could potentially improve the lives of people living with CF. 

What sets her research apart is that she has found a treatment with promising results. Over the last six years, their lab has worked with a drug that interacts with mucus to make it thinner, helping patients breathe easier. By using cells and sputum from CF patients, as well as animal models to mimic human CF in the laboratory, the drug has made it into clinical trials.

“In the CF world, we like to say 'We won’t quit until CF stands for ‘Cure Found’," she said. “I am honored to be a part of the CF family and stand to fight for our patients until every patient has been cured.”