Cystic fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is an autosomal recessive genetic disease that affects the exocrine function of the lungs, liver, pancreas and small bowel resulting in progressive disability and multi-system failure. This article is a general discussion of the disease. Each organ system will be discussed separately.

Cystic fibrosis is the most common genetic disease affecting European population with an incidence of approximately 1:2000-3500 live births 5.

The diagnosis may be suspected antenatally due to the presence of echogenic bowel on antenatal ultrasound, or due to genetic testing of the parents.

In many countries the presence of cystic fibrosis is tested for immediately after birth with a sweat test (positive sweat chloride test Cl >60 mEq/L) 5. Alternatively genetic testing is also available.

The diagnosis usually becomes evident in infancy, with presentations including:

Cystic fibrosis is due to a defect of the Cystic Fibrosis Transmembrane Regulator (CFTR)  (gene on chromosome 7q31.2) which is responsible for regulating chloride passage across cell membranes.

Delta F 508 is the most common mutation (66-70%) seen in CFTR gene6.

In skin, unlike elsewhere, CFTR is responsible for influx of chloride and increases the sodium channel activity, thus controlling influx of sodium. The net effect of a normally functioning CFTR is to resorb sodium and chloride. In CF patients, this is lost and therefore the characteristic increase in salt content of sweat (thus the sweat test).

In tissues other than skin, CFTR is responsible for efflux of chloride and inhibition of the sodium channel's activity which controls influx of sodium. Therefore, under normal circumstances salt and chloride remain in the lumen, and keep water there osmotically. In CF patients, too little chloride is pumped out, too much sodium is reabsorbed with osmotic re-absorption of water from the lumen. The result is iso-osmotic, but low volume, secretions, which tend to dry out, or be thick as they still contain all the other constituents.

Early institution of multi-disciplinary treatment is essential and responsible for the dramatic increase in life expectancy, now reaching 40 or more years. 

Treatments options include 7:

  • prolonged courses of antibiotics
  • oral and inhaled corticosteroids
  • pancreatic enzyme supplementation: required in 85% cases
  • vitamin supplementation
  • insulin
  • physiotherapy
  • lung transplantation

Both transplanted and non-transplanted CF patients are at increased risk of some malignancies 8:

  • gastrointestinal malignancy, in particular oesophageal, gastric, small bowel and colorectal cancer
  • gallbladder and extrahepatic biliary tree
  • lymphoma/leukaemia
  • testicular cancer
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Article information

rID: 1188
System: Chest
Section: Pathology
Tag: lung
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:
  • Cystic fibrosis (CF)
  • Mucoviscidosis

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Cases and figures

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    Figure 1: finger clubbing in cystic fibrosis
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    Case 1
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    Case 2: with pancreatic calcification
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    Cystic fibrosis
    Case 3
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    Case 4: with meconium ileus
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    Case 5
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    Case 7: with DIOS
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    Case 8
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    Cystic fibrosis a...
    Case 9: with left upper lobe collapse
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    Case 10
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    Case 11
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