Stomach Bugs (That Aren't the Flu)
Updated: Nov 28, 2019
Ulcers: stomach pain, heartburn, cramping, dizziness, general discomfort, even vomiting and fainting. Long dealt with as onset symptoms from stress or irritating foods, ulcers have been medically diagnosed disruptors-of-everyday-life for decades. (1) Treatments in the 1970s could include acid blockers, antacids, and dairy products. Take it easier, worry less.
In the 1980s, two Australian medical researchers Barry J. Marshall and Robin Warren threw out the book on ulcers with a breakthrough discovery on the role of the bacterium Heliobacter pylori (commonly known as H. pylori) with the formation of peptic ulcers and gastritis. (2) Further, their research laid the foundation for future researchers to establish the now well-accepted connection between H. pylori and stomach cancer. (2),(3) In 2005 both researchers won the Nobel Prize for their outstanding medical detective work on H. pylori. (4)
Today, we know that H. pylori colonizes the human stomach and is present in approximately 50% of the world’s population. Its presence as acute infection can cause gastritis, peptic ulcer disease and gastric adenocarcinoma (cancer of the mucus producing cells in the stomach). H. pylori may cause up to 80% of gastric ulcers and more than 90% of duodenal (small intestine segment) ulcers. This bacterium is of particular concern for developing countries due to lack of access to proper medical care and antibiotic resistance. (2),(4),(5)
But how did these researchers make such a revolutionary breakthrough? The answer lies in the unique and quite radical approach Marshall and Warren took in their research. During his tenure as a pathologist, Warren observed bacteria colonizing the lower part of the stomach in approximately half of biopsies from patients. He was first to link the observation of tissue inflammation with the presence of bacteria. (4)
As a clinical fellow, Marshall joined Warren in investigating the bacterium-inflammation correlation. They spent years culturing the bacteria and conducting scientific studies to establish irrefutable evidence that H. pylori could induce medical symptoms. (4) In 1985 to test their theory contradicting established medical knowledge that ulcers were caused by stress or spicy foods (by the way researchers, don’t do this at home--or in lab!) Marshall infected himself with H. pylori, documenting results to demonstrate that it induced gastric illness and symptoms over the course of two weeks.(2), (6) This research was published in the Medical Journal of Australia, and established a basis of knowledge for future H. pylori research. (2) Through the creative work of these scientists, the 3 μm long helix-shaped bacterium became a star. Dozens more researchers began to explore the topic. As of 2005 when the Nobel prize was awarded to Marshall and Warren, there existed about 25,000 scientific publications on H. pylori. (2)
The gained knowledge of the connection between this bacterium and gastric issues as well as stomach cancer gives power to the medical community to diagnose and protect patients. With information from the decades-long research of Marshall and Warren and the many following scientists, massive medical advances have allowed us to improve the quality of life and health of millions of people.
We still have a long way to go to eradicate cancer--but spreading the knowledge of cancer origins like H. pylori and advancing viral and bacterial research will allow us to make even more exciting breakthroughs in the field. We hope you will join us in spreading the word to others!
(2) "23 years of the discovery of Helicobacter pylori: Is the debate over?" 2005; 4: 17. Ann Clin Microbiol Antimicrob. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1283743/
(4) Press release. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2019. Sat. 16 Nov 2019. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/2005/press-release/
(6) "The Doctor Who Drank Infectious Broth, Gave Himself an Ulcer, and Solved a Medical Mystery." http://discovermagazine.com/2010/mar/07-dr-drank-broth-gave-ulcer-solved-medical-mystery