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Meet Jillian McNulty: Cystic Fibrosis Patient and Clinical Trials Advocate

Photos: Courtesy of Shelley Corcoran Photography

Jillian McNulty is a fighter. Born with cystic fibrosis (CF), a chronic and genetic disorder affecting the lungs, she’s spent her whole life fighting to stay healthy.

It was only during a clinical trial, when she tried a new medicine called Orkambi, that she met with success. Since then, she’s been fighting for other cystic fibrosis (CF) patients to have access to the drug too.

One of four children, McNulty’s oldest brother had cystic fibrosis and died when he was five-and-a-half. Her prognosis wasn’t good either. When she was born, doctors told her parents she wouldn’t live past her fifth birthday. She’s now 43 and jokes that she has geriatric CF, and is grateful to be alive.

Last hope

Over the years, McNulty has suffered from recurring pneumonia, and sometimes spent eight to nine months out of the year in the hospital.

“I didn’t have a great quality of life,” she recalls, noting her condition was at its worst in 2012 after her other brother, who had special needs, died. She was able to run a marathon before her lung function dropped from the high 50s (percent) to the 30s. She became dependent on IVs and antibiotics.

Fortunately McNulty qualified for the Orkambi clinical trial, which required her to have lung functioning in the 40s and to not be hospitalized for four or more weeks.

She got emotional when she got the news she qualified. “I can remember I cried my eyes out because to me this was my last chance, my last hope. Things started to turn after that.”

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Though she struggled for the first four months of the trial, at six months her hospitalizations started to decrease. But things took a turn in 2016, when she contracted swine flu and influenza A at the same time. Her lung function was down to 11 percent. Things were grim, but McNulty pushed on.

Changing lives

“Orkambi brought me back from the brink,” McNulty says, explaining it took three months to recover.

She says the drug, which is manufactured by Vertex, works on the underlying cause of CF, a life-threatening disease that affects approximately 75,000 people in North America, Europe and Australia.

“It’s not a cure but it tweaks the channels so our bodies respond better,” says McNulty, whose lung function is now at 42 percent.

These days, she spends only six weeks a year hospitalized. But now she’s struggling with end-stage kidney disease, another chronic condition she’s had for years, and needs a kidney transplant. But before that, she needs a lung transplant.

Still she’s optimistic about her future and the future of other CF patients.

“It’s all changing. People with CF are going to live so much longer,” says McNulty. “That’s incredible.”

The CF Advocate

For the past 11 years, McNulty has campaigned for CF patients in her native Ireland, including lobbying the Irish government to make sure Orkambi and other medications were made available for CF patients. Her campaign was successful and she obtained “pipeline” approval for 10 years of promised accessibility to the drug.

“My friends were dying and I couldn’t stand by and say nothing,” says McNulty, who’s won three awards for her advocacy. “I needed people to see what Orkambi had done for me.”

She’s also been instrumental in campaigns related to the hospitalization of CF patients, helping ensure they get single unit hospital rooms to prevent them from being exposed to other sick patients while their immune systems were so compromised. 

Her advocacy continues on, and she urges patients with CF and other conditions to participate in clinical trials: “It’s worth the chance, it’s worth the risk. It has the potential to transform your life in ways you can’t imagine.”

Kristen Castillo, [email protected]

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