Microbes found in healthy lungs shed light on cystic fibrosis

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New research has identified key differences in the lungs of healthy people compared with the lungs of people with cystic fibrosis (CF).

The study, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, analysed sputum samples from 16 people with cystic fibrosis and nine healthy people. The scientists also analysed lung tissue samples from seven patients’ explanted lungs, which isthe organ removed when the patient received a lung transplant.

Several differences emerged between the lung bacteria of the two groups of people. In general, healthy individuals had more diversity among their lung bacteria. The results also showed that the lungs provide a system which regulates its internal environment and tends to maintain a stable, relatively constant condition, known as homeostasis. This might function to preserve healthy lungs.

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

The results open many questions for future research. No one has ever tested the idea that certain microbes benefit lung health, for instance. It could also help researchers understand how antibiotics, given to people with CF, could change the microbes in the lungs.

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