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Pfeiffer University Alumnus Plays Key Role In Cystic Fibrosis Progress

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 percent 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 ’89, an alumnus 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, N.C., 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 you 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: Dr. Steve C. Dial ’59 (1937-2012), Professor Emeritus of Biology, and Dr. Mike Riemann ’70 (Hon.), ’10 (Hon.), 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.”

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