Mutations in the CFTR (cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator) cause CF (cystic fibrosis), a fatal genetic disease commonly leading to airway obstruction with recurrent airway inflammation and infection. Pulmonary obstruction in CF has been linked to the loss of CFTR function as a regulated Cl channel on the lumen-facing membrane of the epithelium lining the airways. We have learned much about the molecular basis for nucleotide- and phosphorylation-dependent regulation of channel activity of the normal (wild-type) version of the CFTR protein through electrophysiological studies. The major CF-causing mutation, F508del-CFTR, causes the protein to misfold and be retained in the ER (endoplasmic reticulum). Importantly, recent studies in cell culture have shown that retention in the ER can be ‘corrected’ through the application of certain small-molecule modulators and, once at the surface, the altered channel function of the major mutant can be ‘potentiated’, pharmacologically. Importantly, two such small molecules, a ‘corrector’ (VX-809) and a ‘potentiator’ (VX-770) compound are undergoing clinical trial for the treatment of CF. In this chapter, we describe recent discoveries regarding the wild-type CFTR and F508del-CFTR protein, in the context of molecular models based on X-ray structures of prokaryotic ABC (ATP-binding cassette) proteins. Finally, we discuss the promise of small-molecule modulators to probe the relationship between structure and function in the wild-type protein, the molecular defects caused by the most common mutation and the structural changes required to correct these defects.

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