Cystic Fibrosis Airway Mucus Hyperconcentration Produces a Vicious Cycle of Mucin, Pathogen, and Inflammatory Interactions that Promotes Disease Persistence

Am J Respir Cell Mol Biol. 2022 Aug;67(2):253-265. doi: 10.1165/rcmb.2021-0359OC.


The dynamics describing the vicious cycle characteristic of cystic fibrosis (CF) lung disease, initiated by stagnant mucus and perpetuated by infection and inflammation, remain unclear. Here we determine the effect of the CF airway milieu, with persistent mucoobstruction, resident pathogens, and inflammation, on the mucin quantity and quality that govern lung disease pathogenesis and progression. The concentrations of MUC5AC and MUC5B were measured and characterized in sputum samples from subjects with CF (N = 44) and healthy subjects (N = 29) with respect to their macromolecular properties, degree of proteolysis, and glycomics diversity. These parameters were related to quantitative microbiome and clinical data. MUC5AC and MUC5B concentrations were elevated, 30- and 8-fold, respectively, in CF as compared with control sputum. Mucin parameters did not correlate with hypertonic saline, inhaled corticosteroids, or antibiotics use. No differences in mucin parameters were detected at baseline versus during exacerbations. Mucin concentrations significantly correlated with the age and sputum human neutrophil elastase activity. Although significantly more proteolytic cleavages were detected in CF mucins, their macromolecular properties (e.g., size and molecular weight) were not significantly different than control mucins, likely reflecting the role of S-S bonds in maintaining multimeric structures. No evidence of giant mucin macromolecule reflecting oxidative stress-induced cross-linking was found. Mucin glycomic analysis revealed significantly more sialylated glycans in CF, and the total abundance of nonsulfated O-glycans correlated with the relative abundance of pathogens. Collectively, the interaction of mucins, pathogens, epithelium, and inflammatory cells promotes proteomic and glycomic changes that reflect a persistent mucoobstructive, infectious, and inflammatory state.

Keywords: cystic fibrosis; inflammation; microbiome; mucins; mucus obstruction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Cystic Fibrosis* / pathology
  • Humans
  • Inflammation
  • Mucin 5AC
  • Mucin-5B
  • Mucus
  • Proteomics
  • Respiratory System / pathology


  • Mucin 5AC
  • Mucin-5B