Irreversible destruction and widening of the airways due to acquired infections or genetic mutations as well as those of unknown cause are more severe in females. Differences between male and female anatomy, behavior, and hormonal state have been proposed to explain the increased incidence and severity in females with airway disease such as cystic fibrosis (CF); however, a mechanism to explain a sex-related difference has remained elusive. In this issue of the JCI, Coakley et al. report that elevations in the major estrogen hormone in humans — 17β-estradiol — reduce Ca2+-activated Cl– secretion by airway epithelial cells in culture, thereby disrupting ion and water balance (see the related article beginning on page 4025). They measure a similar diminution of nasal epithelial Ca2+-activated Cl– secretion in women with CF during the menstrual cycle phase at which 17β-estradiol level is at its highest. These data suggest that for about one week of a four-week menstrual cycle, women with CF will have a reduced ability to efficiently clear airway secretions, the buildup of which is a hallmark of CF. The authors suggest that these data warrant the testing of antiestrogen therapy in females with CF and propose an alternative avenue for CF therapeutic development.
Pamela L. Zeitlin