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HYRUM — When young patients with cystic fibrosis discovered they could breathe easier while surfing, scientists decided to test what they experienced in a bottle — so to speak.
Researchers have known for some time that salt plays a key role in cystic fibrosis — a life-threatening genetic disease that causes mucus to build up and clog organs, particularly the lungs and pancreas. When the mucus clogs up the lungs, it makes breathing very difficult.
Cystic fibrosis is caused when a gene that controls the amount of salt and water in the airways of the lungs turns defective.
Now, almost six years after that saltwater therapy discovery, 7-year-old Katie Warner in Hyrum, Cache County, inhales vaporized salt into her lungs. She said she feels a lot better after each nebulizer treatment twice a day.
"It feels good, like I’m a normal person," she said. "I don’t feel like I have cystic fibrosis.”
The Hypertonic Saline Therapy that's changed Katie’s breathing also led her sister Jayme to write a science research essay for the DuPont Science Challenge. Entitled "Salt: Saving Lives One Breath at a Time,” the 16-year-old sophomore’s paper talks about Katie’s saltwater therapy in a very personal way.
"Through a process of osmosis,” she wrote, "the salt water, or the salt in the air at a 7 percent concentration, basically goes into the cells and draws out the mucus from the cells. It’s loose in the lungs and easier to cough up. I figured if I could research on something that would help her it would be very personal to me.”
Though not all CF families are convinced salt water therapy pays off in the end, researchers have found in controlled experiments that when patients -- especially younger ones -- inhale a salty solution, almost twice as salty as the Atlantic Ocean, lung function improves. In some cases the treatment slows the progression of the disease.
Jayme's saltwater research stood on its own, but it was the personal observations of her sister and the hope of what nature’s own therapy will do for future CF patients that led to the first place nod from DuPont.
Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, the DuPont is the nation's premiere science essay awards program. Several thousand students from the United States and Canada participate each year. CLICK HERE to read an excerpt from the essay.
The announcement came by phone to Jayme’s high school, InTech Collegiate High School in North Logan. It caught her completely off guard. "They called me into the principal’s office out of class, and my principal was there and my science teacher was there, and I thought I was in big trouble,” she said.
Jayme’s mother, Terryl, was equally surprised when the school called her at work. "When they said she had won first place, I’m not sure who was screaming louder. We were both yelling. I was jumping up and down and screaming.”
Jayme’s background in the sciences at InTech will now advance her to Utah State University’s Early College Program this fall. She loves biochemistry and medicine — two disciplines that could pave a path for her future. She said she will not abandon her hopes for her sister.
"I would like Katie to be able to run at recess — to be able to play like a normal kid when she’s older, to be able to go to dances and just dance her heart out,” she said.
"I just feel really, really excited and proud I could do something like this,” Jayme said. "I’m kind of amazed and shocked. I never in a thousand years thought I would be able to do something like this.”
Jayme was recognized at award ceremonies in Florida. She gets a $5,000 savings bond. Additional funding goes to her science teacher, along with a grant to bolster the teaching of science there.
The DuPont Challenge began 25 years ago. According to CEO Ellen Kullman, "It challenges students to not only explore their own futures, but project how they can contribute to a better world through scientific discovery, invention and innovation.”