The Incredible Tale of Barry Marshall and the Bacteria

Dr Barry Marshall

The story of Dr. Barry Marshall is not well known to most people — but it should be. Dr. Marshall is an Australian physician who won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, along with his colleague J. Robin Warren, for proving that most peptic ulcers are caused by the bacteria H. pylori.

In the early 1980s Dr. Marshall conjectured that one specific bacteria, H. pylori, plays a fundamental role in causing of peptic ulcers.

At that time, ulcers were considered a sign of weakness, the inability to handle the stresses and strains of daily life. There was a stigma to being diagnosed with and ulcer, and people with ulcers were often sent to psychiatrists —not gastroenterologists — for help.

In 1984, having difficulty infecting lab animals with H. pylori, Dr. Marshall took the extreme step of infecting himself with the bacteria. After five days, he began experiencing intense pain and vomiting. An endoscopy revealed that H. pylori bacteria had invaded his entire body. This unusual strategm was the beginning of his proof that the true cause of gastric ulcers was the H. pylori bacteria. After treating himself with a course of antibiotics, his symptoms went away.

Further research confirmed his theories. And today, the medical establishment agrees that H. pylori is responsible for most gastric ulcers, as well many other gastrointestinal problems.

But Dr. Marshall’s insight and achievement didn’t end there. In fact, his ideas and research are still bearing fruit.

According to the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research, stomach cancer is the fourth most common cancer in men and the seventh most common cancer in women. It has been known for many years that one of the main risk factors for stomach cancer is infection with the bacteria H. pylori. However, the specific mechanism that causes the bacteria to increase stomach cancer risk was not understood.

Recently, a team of researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in Seattle, WA, pinpointed the specific H. pylori strain responsible for the increased risk of stomach cancer. The research was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Dr. Nina Salima and a team of researchers from Zhengzhou University in China, identified a specific form of H. pylori bacteria that had a variation in one specific gene. Among the study participants with this particular variant, 91% had a diagnosis of stomach cancer.

Dr. Salima and her colleagues hope that this new knowledge will provide a new target for the treatment of stomach cancer. Moreover, it has been discovered that variants of H. pylori bacteria are directly or indirectly responsible for approximately 20% of cancers worldwide. Finding the specific variant linked to each type of cancer may help develop vaccines for the prevention of these cancers, or medicines to fight them.

Since the risk of cancers increases with age, it is exciting for older people — and those who love them — to see continual breakthroughs in our understanding of cancer. Each day we hear about new discoveries and new ideas that will help us lead happier and healthier lives in our golden years.

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