The researchers have studied a CF-causing protein and another protein called epithelial sodium channel (ENaC).
Both proteins are known to play a role in the disease, but exactly what role each plays is unclear.
The researchers say that the new pictures indicate that the two proteins occur close enough to interact with each other. According to them, a failure of interaction between the two proteins leads to a dangerous biochemical imbalance in people diagnosed with CF.
A report on the study, published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, suggests that obtaining more knowledge about this protein proximity may help scientists better understand the biological underpinnings of CF, and thus speed the discovery of new drugs to treat or cure the disease.
"Our findings suggest a direct interaction between these two proteins and their proximity makes the evidence convincing," said Lead author of the study, Dr. Bakhrom Berdiev, a UAB assistant professor of cell biology.
The study involved a laser-scanning microscope, which enabled the researchers to capture images of the two proteins "within reach of each other".
"The absence of this interaction could shape the development of CF," Berdiev said.
Both proteins generally help make up the lining of the lungs and other membranes, and keep the balance of water and salt at safe levels.
However, in the case of CF, ENaC is allowed to hyper-function in the presence of the CF-causing protein and disturb the balance of water and salt. This leads to the formation of a sticky mucus inside the airways, which can lead to chronic lung infections, the most dangerous symptom of CF. Other symptoms involve digestive problems.
Berdiev says that the results of the study show that future research should look at other molecules which are not directly linked to CF, but are involved in the disease process and its side effects.