Gene therapy-emulating small molecule treatments in cystic fibrosis airway epithelial cells and patients

Q. Yang, A. R. Soltis, G. Sukumar, X. Zhang, H. Caohuy, J. Freedy, C. L. Dalgard, M. D. Wilkerson, H. B. Pollard*, B. S. Pollard

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Background: Several small molecule corrector and potentiator drugs have recently been licensed for Cystic Fibrosis (CF) therapy. However, other aspects of the disease, especially inflammation, are less effectively treated by these drugs. We hypothesized that small molecule drugs could function either alone or as an adjuvant to licensed therapies to treat these aspects of the disease, perhaps emulating the effects of gene therapy in CF cells. The cardiac glycoside digitoxin, which has been shown to inhibit TNFα/NFκB signaling in CF lung epithelial cells, may serve as such a therapy. Methods: IB3-1 CF lung epithelial cells were treated with different Vertex (VX) drugs, digitoxin, and various drug mixtures, and ELISA assays were used to assess suppression of baseline and TNFα-activated secretion of cytokines and chemokines. Transcriptional responses to these drugs were assessed by RNA-seq and compared with gene expression in AAV-[wildtype]CFTR-treated IB3-1 (S9) cells. We also compared in vitro gene expression signatures with in vivo data from biopsied nasal epithelial cells from digitoxin-treated CF patients. Results: CF cells exposed to digitoxin exhibited significant suppression of both TNFα/NFκB signaling and downstream secretion of IL-8, IL-6 and GM-CSF, with or without co-treatment with VX drugs. No evidence of drug-drug interference was observed. RNA-seq analysis showed that gene therapy-treated CF lung cells induced changes in 3134 genes. Among these, 32.6% were altered by digitoxin treatment in the same direction. Shared functional gene ontology themes for genes suppressed by both digitoxin and gene therapy included inflammation (84 gene signature), and cell-cell interactions and fibrosis (49 gene signature), while genes elevated by both were enriched for epithelial differentiation (82 gene signature). A new analysis of mRNA data from digitoxin-treated CF patients showed consistent trends in expression for genes in these signatures. Conclusions: Adjuvant gene therapy-emulating activities of digitoxin may contribute to enhancing the efficacy of currently licensed correctors and potentiators in CF patients.

Original languageEnglish
Article number290
JournalRespiratory Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - 21 Dec 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Digitoxin
  • Inflammation
  • Ivacaftor
  • Kalydeco
  • Lumacaftor
  • Tezacaftor


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