Research & Technology

Spectrum Health – Michigan State University Partnership to Study New Treatment Options for Cystic Fibrosis

Project awarded $2.1 million NIH grant for four year study

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich., Oct. 18, 2021 – Spectrum Health is partnering with the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine to study the cellular and infection mechanisms of cystic fibrosis, a disease that afflicts more than 30,000 people in the United States and 70,000 worldwide.

Xiaopeng Li, PhD, an associate professor in the MSU College of Human Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics and Human Development, has been awarded a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to study how CFTR gene mutations in the small airways in the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients lead to life-threatening infections. The CFTR gene is the causal gene for cystic fibrosis.

The funding – $2.1 million over four years – is “critical for this research,” which could potentially lead to gene therapies for the disease, Li said,  “One reason we got the grant is we have a lot of data to show this is a feasible approach to treating the disease.”

Li will lead a team that includes College of Human Medicine researchers Jeremy Prokop, PhD, Christopher Waters, PhD, and pulmonologist Ryan Thomas, MD. The project also includes three pulmonologists from Spectrum Health and Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital Cystic Fibrosis Center – Susan Millard, MD, John Schuen, MD, and co-investigator Reda Girgis, MD, who leads the Spectrum Health team.

The collaboration between the college and Spectrum Health highlights the importance of “our outstanding and expanding research partnership in the area of cystic fibrosis,” said B. Keith English, MD, chair of the college’s Department of Pediatrics and Human Development.

The significance of the small airways in cystic fibrosis patients has not been well studied, Li said. Previous research, however, has shown that cells in the small airways of cystic fibrosis patients do not secrete bicarbonate, a substance necessary to maintain a proper pH balance on the cell surface. As a result, Li said, cystic fibrosis patients tend to develop thick mucus obstruction in the small airways, making them susceptible to bacterial infections, which can lead to respiratory failure and death.

Current therapies, which treat symptoms of the disease and underlying causes but do not cure it, have extended the average life expectancy of cystic fibrosis patients to the mid-40s. It is a genetic disease caused by defects in the CFTR gene and typically is diagnosed in infancy. The study will look at why the cystic fibrosis small airways are so vulnerable to infection and the feasibility of replacing the defective gene with a normal gene.

“For years, CF patients have had to spend hours doing nebulized medicines and airway clearance in addition to other medications,” said Millard. “The newest CFTR modulators are one big step closer to improved health but are not available for all patients because of the variety of mutations present in the CFTR gene. Therefore, we have patients who need better options.”

“There have been multiple attempts to replace the gene or do gene therapy to correct the disease, which have not proven successful,” said Girgis. “It is hoped that this research can lead to a treatment that will prevent long-term lung disease.”


About Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Since 1964, Michigan State University College of Human Medicine has drawn upon MSU’s land grant values to educate exemplary physicians, discover and disseminate new knowledge and respond to the needs of the medically underserved in communities throughout Michigan. The medical school’s statewide footprint includes seven community-integrated campuses: Flint, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Midland Regional, Southeast Michigan, Traverse City and the Upper Peninsula Region. MSU’s Grand Rapids Research Center has centers of excellence in Parkinson’s disease research and women’s health research. The college’s Flint campus is home to MSU’s public health research and the MSU-Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative. For more information, visit the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine Web site at

About Spectrum Health

Spectrum Health is a not-for-profit health system that provides care and coverage, comprising 31,000+ team members, 14 hospitals (including Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital), a robust network of care facilities, teams of nationally recognized doctors and providers, and the nation’s third-largest provider-sponsored health plan, Priority Health, currently serving over 1 million members across the state of Michigan.

People are at the heart of everything we do. Locally governed and headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan, we are focused on our mission: to improve health, inspire hope and save lives. Spectrum Health has a legacy of strong community partnerships, philanthropy and transparency. Through experience, innovation and collaboration, we are reimagining a better, more equitable model of health and wellness.



Spectrum Health
Tim Hawkins
616.443.0361 (cell/text)

Michigan State University College of Human Medicine 
Geri Kelley
616.350.7976 (cell/text)

People are at the heart of everything we do, and the inspiration for our legacy of outstanding outcomes, innovation, strong community partnerships, philanthropy and transparency. Corewell Health is a not-for-profit health system that provides health care and coverage with an exceptional team of 60,000+ dedicated people—including more than 11,500 physicians and advanced practice providers and more than 15,000 nurses providing care and services in 21 hospitals, 300+ outpatient locations and several post-acute facilities—and Priority Health, a provider-sponsored health plan serving more than 1.3 million members. Through experience and collaboration, we are reimagining a better, more equitable model of health and wellness. For more information, visit