Skip to main content

News and Media

Open Main MenuClose Main Menu
Yong Cheng (back left) and student researchers Krish Kasiraja, Stephen Kotey, Carlyn Guthrie, Charlie Vermeire (front left) and Audrey Dagnell form a research team to find ways to help those with cystic fibrosis (Photo by Joey Scudder-Barfield).

Breathing Easier

Friday, January 5, 2024

Media Contact: Sophia Fahleson | Digital Communications Specialist | 405-744-7063 |

Cystic fibrosis. Two words that alter a person’s life from the moment of diagnosis.

Joy Hendrix, a 2019 alumna of the Oklahoma State University agricultural communications program, has lived with CF her entire life.

“I’m not a stranger to the hospital,” Hendrix said. “I’ve gone when I need to get regular tune-ups.”

These “tune-ups” consist of routine trips every year for regimens of testing, intravenous fluids, and treatments lasting two to four weeks at a time, Hendrix said, and potentially longer if her condition did not improve.

“My parents were incredibly diligent with my treatments and medications,” Hendrix said. “I had a very well managed case of CF up until my senior year at OSU.”

That year, a simple infection made her studies more difficult. The infection became a severe case of pneumonia, Hendrix said.

However, recent breakthroughs in CF treatments in the past five years have helped some CF patients through the use of modulator drug therapies to correct malfunctioning proteins in the body, she said.

“My life is 100% different than it was before I started taking modulators,” Hendrix said.

Some patients with cystic fibrosis can have a buildup of thick, dehydrated mucus in the airway, said Yong Cheng, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at OSU, and mycobacteria survive easily in that environment. In a person with healthy lungs, mucus is easily expelled, he said.

“From here, the bacteria can dysregulate immune cells,” Cheng said. “These dysregulated immune cells further make a favorable environment for bacterial infections in CF patients.”

Cheng works with graduate and undergraduate students to study new treatments for people with CF.

“We want to know why the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients are susceptible to infection,” Cheng said, “and what causes an attenuated protective immune response in a CF patient.”

Cheng’s team is studying Mycobacterium abscessus, a bacterial species that normally does not cause disease in humans.

These bacteria are found in soil, dust and water.

“Mycobacterium abscessus is basically an environmental bacterium,” Cheng said. “In general, they are non-pathogenic.”

Cheng’s research team conducts different concurrent projects with regard to mycobacteria and CF patients.

Audrey Dagnell, doctoral graduate student in the OSU Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, began working with Cheng in her undergraduate studies to discover new drugs to potentially treat mycobacterium infections.

“I found a list of top chemicals and began looking at one of them pretty in depth,” Dagnell said.

While Dagnell has moved to another research project for her doctoral thesis, she still oversees undergraduate students continuing to study these chemical compounds.

Eli Brown, biochemistry junior, uses the same research methods as Dagnell to study another compound for its potential use in CF patients with pulmonary infections.

“I wanted to be involved with undergraduate research,” Brown said. “I was drawn to the mycobacterial project because of my interest in pharmaceutical development.”

Charlie Vermeire, a Goldwater scholar and Purdie research scholar majoring in microbiology/cell and molecular biology, assisted Cheng with a project focusing on the immunomodulatory effect of exosomes. Exosomes are nanoscale particles smaller than bacteria, she said.

“These are membrane-enclosed vesicles released by immune cells,” Vermeire said. “They contain bacterial and host proteins, lipids, and ribonucleic acids.”

The research is geared toward the effect of these exosomes on the ability of immune cells to respond to infection. In immunocompromised patients like those with CF, these mycobacterial infections are difficult to treat, Vermeire added.

“Mycobacteria are antibiotic-tolerant, slow-growing, and can survive within the alveolar macrophages that are meant to kill them,” Vermeire said. “We study the molecular mechanisms that cause this to happen.”

Cheng’s CF research is funded by a $600,000 portion of multiple grants for the lab totaling $4 million from the National Institute of Health, the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology, and the Oklahoma Center for Respiratory and Infectious Diseases.

Through these grants, the students in Cheng’s lab continue to work toward new treatments for pulmonary infections to help Hendrix and others with CF breathe a little easier.

Story by: Joey Scudder-Barfield | Cowboy Journal

Back To Top
SVG directory not found.