Pfeiffer alumnus is a leader in fight against cystic fibrosis

By Ken Keuffel, for Pfeiffer University

Four drugs have dramatically improved the prospects of most individuals with cystic fibrosis (CF), an inherited disorder that causes severe damage to the lungs, digestive system and other organs in the body.

The drugs have been approved in the United States and many other countries. If taken early in life, they are expected to impact a normal life span in more than 90% of persons with CF who are eligible to take them. In the not-too-distant past, the median age of death for a person with CF ranged from their late 20s to early 30s.

Dr. Christopher M. Penland, a 1989 graduate of Pfeiffer College who majored in exercise science (now called health and exercise science), has played a key role in this progress, having held two leadership positions since 1999 at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the leading force in the quest for treatments and a cure for CF. He has also done significant CF research of his own as part of postdoctoral work at the Cystic Fibrosis Research Laboratory of Stanford University, where he worked after earning a Ph.D. degree in physiology from East Carolina University.

Since 2015, he’s been the Foundation’s vice president of BioPharma programs, a position he filled after serving as its director of research for 15 years. As VP, he helps pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies develop cystic fibrosis drug discovery and development programs that focus on alleviating pulmonary and gastrointestinal manifestations of the disease.

Penland, who originally hails from Cary, now lives in Alexandria, Ohio. He attended Pfeiffer on a soccer scholarship. He also fondly recalls his work as a scorekeeper for the men’s basketball and baseball teams: “Just being able to be there and be in the moment — that was always a lot of fun.”

Penland’s path to his current career exemplifies how a Pfeiffer education often equips one with the self-awareness and tools to start down one scientific path but eventually move to another. His self-awareness is rooted in two legendary professors who taught him when he attended Pfeiffer: 1959 graduate Dr. Steve C. Dial (1937-2012), professor emeritus of biology, and Dr. Mike Riemann, professor emeritus of chemistry.

“Dr. Dial instilled in me a love for biology,” Penland said. “Dr. Riemann convinced me that I was not going to be a chemist and that I should concentrate on biology. Both men were very positive influences.”

The changing-of-scientific-paths in Penland’s life began to take hold at Appalachian State University, where he earned a master’s degree in exercise science but found that a career in that discipline would not be for him. He undertook an internship at the REX Wellness Center of Raleigh, a rehabilitation center known for helping its clients recover from conditions such as heart failure and myocardial infarction, and discovered a new direction.

At the center, Penland found an “element of helping others” that became “more intriguing than trying to squeak out the last 10th of a second for a sprinter or an extra meter for a swimmer, if you will. I liked the research aspect, too.”

As Penland’s studies at Appalachian were winding down, he concluded that a “hardcore” study of physiology was the way to go. At East Carolina University, where he earned his doctorate, he worked with Dr. Michael R. Van Scott, whose interest in CF research relating to pulmonary issues helped lay the groundwork for Penland’s life’s work.

After his postdoctoral work at Stanford concluded, Penland found work as a medical writer. About eight months into that gig, he received a call from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, asking him for recommendations of people who might fill the Foundation’s director of research position. They were looking for someone who was familiar with the CF field, and who knew the key CF players. Someone, in other words, like Penland.

Penland provided a few names, but about two weeks later, the Foundation called and asked him to interview for the directorship job, which, of course, led to an offer that he accepted.

As Penland considers what’s next for him at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, he acknowledges that he’ll likely retire after five to 10 more years on the job. In that time, he’ll lend his leadership to Foundation efforts to develop drugs that work for the remaining 10% of people with CF.

As was the case with the aforementioned 90% of individuals with CF, the challenge will be finding a way to restore normal function in the CFTR gene, a crucial facet of CF treatment — but in a way that addresses what Penland described as “a huge number of mutations spread out rather evenly among the other 10% of patients.”

“We are trying to identify means of restoring CFTR function in them such that you have a drug that is applicable to every one of the 10%, rather than trying to develop 20, 30 or however many drugs for the 10% of patients,” he added.

Such a scenario isn’t likely to emerge during Penland’s remaining years at the Foundation, as a drug’s development usually takes 10 years from its conception until the moment a doctor actually prescribes it.

“I would certainly love to be around to see the first positive result coming out of Phase 2 clinical trials for drugs aimed at the remaining 10% of patients,” he said. “I think that if we saw some positive results coming out of Phase 2 trials, that would be highly encouraging.” And undoubtedly, a capstone in Penland’s outstanding career, for which Pfeiffer laid a solid foundation.