In the publish-or-perish world of higher education, no one's surprised a professor is published in a professional journal. BYU professor Valerie Hudson's peer-reviewed article, advocating a new approach to treating cystic fibrosis, would be no exception but for one thing:

She's a professor of political science. And her "hypothesis" paper appears this week in a ranked, respected medical biology journal, "Free Radical Biology and Medicine."

It's "fairly unusual" for a nonscientist to write about medicine, said Dr. Henry Forman, the journal's associate editor and a co-director of the Center for Free Radical Biology at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, who said the journal rejects 75 percent of the material it receives. "This is a very bright woman with a particular reason for having become knowledgeable" in a field so far removed from her own.

Two reasons, in Hudson's case: her sons John, 4, and Thomas, 2. Both have cystic fibrosis, a hereditary disease causing chronic lung problems and digestive disorders, as well as a shortened life span. She and her husband, David, didn't know they both carried the gene. The shock led her to hundreds of hours doing research, helped by a small group of volunteers who combed journals, including a BYU student who has since died of the disease's complications.

Her theories have prompted a clinical trial now under way in Germany at the University of Munich's children's hospital and an offer to conduct a similar study in Utah if funding can be obtained.

Hudson had to teach herself human physiology and molecular biology, using textbooks and medical dictionaries, to even understand the specialized medical articles. As she studied, she began to suspect that glutathione, a substance that occurs in almost every human cell and is already being used to treat emphysema and adult respiratory distress syndrome, might be a key to help people with cystic fibrosis. That's the basis for the article.

It's a theory, but one based on serious science, according to Forman and Dr. Matthias Griese, the German doctor who confirmed by e-mail that he is giving patients who have cystic fibrosis glutathione to see if it helps them. He undertook the study after meeting Hudson's husband at an international conference.

Dr. Clark Bishop, board certified in pulmonary, internal and critical care medicine and regional medical director at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center, believes Hudson's suggestion merits attention. If he had the money — estimated at $50,000 — to do a thorough clinical trial, it would already be under way, he said. "The main drawback to this therapy in the eyes of a researcher is that it's cheap; nobody is going to make any money off it" since a naturally occurring substance can't be patented like a drug. "I'm not looking for extra things to do. But this is a hypothesis that deserves to be tested. The basic science is sound and the mechanism is well worked out."

Hudson's theory has been controversial, in no small part because of the source. She fears the scientific community won't take a treatment suggestion by someone who teaches international relations seriously enough to see whether it's valid.

Cystic fibrosis results from mutation of a gene responsible for making a protein called CFTR that serves as a pathway out of most cells. With the mutation, certain biochemicals are stuck. It's long been known that chloride is one of those chemicals and many studies have examined why chloride's inability to exit cells has caused the disease's symptoms.

Hudson believes the problem is glutathione, also proven to be trapped by the faulty CFTR. She doesn't know if it's in addition to chloride or instead of chloride that symptoms occur.

She posits that if correct levels of glutathione are restored to the lungs, the weakening of the lungs could be stopped or at least slowed dramatically.

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"(The paper) went through a fairly tough review," Forman said. "It's valid as a hypothesis — it's testable and the chemistry underlying the potential protective role of glutathione is there. . . . It's hard to say if this therapy will make a major difference; it would certainly seem that increasing glutathione in the (lung's) airspace would have an advantageous effect."

Researchers believe that gene therapy will solve the problem, but it's a long way off. "By the time my kids hit 10, half their lung function could be gone," Hudson said. "I'm all for gene therapy, but we have to keep these kids alive long enough to profit from it."


E-mail: lois@desnews.com