An experimental drug called ivacaftor has transformed life for two Massachusetts sisters born with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that frequently interrupted their schoolwork and extracurricular activities by turning simple colds and viruses into potentially life-threatening lung infections that slowly reduced their ability to breathe freely.
Laura Cheevers, now 13, and her sister Cate, 10, were born with a gene defect that clogged their lungs with thick, sticky mucus, leaving them vulnerable to bacterial growth, infection and inflammation. Cystic fibrosis affects mucus membranes elsewhere in their bodies, including their digestive systems, where it interferes with absorption of nutrients, forcing them to consume thousands of daily calories to keep from losing weight. Both were in and out of the hospital and tired easily from an incurable, progressive disorder, which their parents knew could cut short their lives.
But today both are thriving, thanks to an international team of scientists and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, which spent years jointly developing what is shaping up to be the first treatment successfully targeting the basic defect underlying their disease. Although the twice-daily pill only helps CF patients with one particular genetic mutation, about 5 percent, experts expect the research to help them target the other mutations responsible for the disease. Both girls participated in double-blind clinical trials comparing ivacaftor pills to dummy pills among young adults and children. Neither the patients, nor their doctors, knew for sure for 48 weeks if they were getting the medication -- or the placebo.
However, the family and Cate had their suspicions. They noticed that Cate began improving within a month of beginning the study of ivacaftor in children 6 to 11. She stopped coughing, began growing like a weed, and her first lung tests showed "almost a 30 percent bump, which blew all of us away," said her mother, Kim Cheevers. Laura, who was in a similar study of the drug in children and adults ages 12 and older, stayed "pretty much the same as before. She ended up worsening over the winter."
Then, on April 1, everyone in the two trials began getting the medication for sure, and the results have been nothing short of stunning for the sisters from North Andover, Mass.
Laura, who typically "strains to gain a pound a year," has gained about 8 pounds, said Kim Cheevers, a pediatric intensive care nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. "She is not coughing at night anymore. When she does get sick --and this week we all have this horrendous cold and cough -- her mucus isn't that thick, thick sticky mucus. Everything is watery; it's easier for her to clear." More remarkable still, "she hasn't been on a course of antibiotics since she's been on the drug. In the past, every other month she'd be on something."
Cate, a soccer goal-tender and defender, said she feels relieved now that both she and her sister are getting the medication. "I'm more comfortable now that I know, for definitely, that I am on the study drug, that I'm not on a placebo." It's also easier to see her sister benefiting now, too. "During the trial, when we didn't know that I was on the study drug – if any of us was on the study drug --she would be coughing a lot more. I would feel bad because I wouldn't be coughing," Cate said in an interview on the way to practice. When Laura would have a special line inserted in her upper arm to deliver antibiotics directly into a vein, "I'd just be there watching," she said.