My research project this summer has focused on evaluating lung function in patients with cystic fibrosis (CF), a disease that causes excessive mucus build-up in the lungs and digestive organs. Symptoms include substantial breathing difficulty and exercise intolerance, and patients with CF undergo hours of treatment per day that involve medication, chest physiotherapy, and exercise. One important medication is albuterol, a bronchodilator that ensures the delivery of antibiotics, steroids, and other inhaled treatments to airway tissues.
To assess lung function, these patients regularly do breathing tests where, after taking in a full breath, they breathe out as hard and fast as possible. I have been using a mathematical measure, called “slope ratio”, to evaluate these breathing tests and investigate the impact of albuterol and/or exercise on lung function. Lower slope ratios indicate improved airway function, and we hypothesized that albuterol and exercise would decrease slope ratios. My research may aid understanding of how albuterol and exercise affect the lung, which might eventually lead to better treatment strategies for lung disease.
Patients with CF performed the above-mentioned breathing tests during three separate visits: 1) after inhaling albuterol, 2) after exercise, and 3) after both albuterol and exercise. Following this data collection, research has been heavily data-based: the data from just nine patients took weeks to fully analyze. However, developing a conceptual understanding of “slope ratio” kept me engaged; I also developed my skills with writing code (i.e. macros in Excel) to streamline my data analysis, which was a fun learning experience. The results we obtained from our slope ratio analyses closely matched our research hypotheses, were quite interesting to interpret and made logical sense regarding the effects of albuterol and moderate-intensity exercise. Briefly, we found that albuterol decreased slope ratios significantly, suggesting albuterol improves airflow and drug delivery in previously congested airways.
Realities of Research
Mentally, scientists have to remain vigilant; when they encounter contradictions to their prior knowledge, they critically re-evaluate their hypotheses and conceptual understanding. I enjoyed interpreting results and discussing hemoglobin/slope ratio concepts with post-docs in the lab, both one-on-one and in daunting lab meetings. And while it was difficult to work with seemingly-endless data, learning how to write macros helped me to be productive, learn a new coding language, and keep myself engaged.