Surely most of you know someone who has been told by his doctor that he has a bacteria in his stomach producing acid reflux, heartburns… this bacteria is Helicobacter pylori.
First of all, some notes about Helicobacter pylori:
- It is a gram-negative, microaerophilic, helix-shaped bacterium.
- About two thirds of the world’s population has this bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, but the 70% of the infections are asymptomatic. This means that we do not notice that we have it.
- Sometimes, and for different reasons (e.g. if we have changes in our intestinal microbiota or we have low defenses) the bacteria can grow and reproduce more quickly, causing remarkable infections.
- A cocktail of antibiotics can eliminate the bacteria, but without treatment it may end up in peptic ulcers (in the stomach and duodenum) and these non-treated ulcers can develop a stomach cancer.
- It is important to visit the doctor and to take the antibiotics correctly, finishing the treatment so the bacteria cannot create resistances. It is already resistant to some antibiotics and nowadays it can only be treated with more than one antibiotic at the same time.
*Microaerophiles are aerobe microorganisms, but require lower oxygen levels than normal.
Who discovered what Helicobacter pylori causes…
Today, if we want to talk about Helicobacter pylori it is not for the bacteria but for the scientists who discovered that it was the causal agent of these ulcers and, with this post, we open the “Micromartyrs” section: Microbiologists who have sacrificed themselves to demonstrate their theories about infectious agents.
The main characters of the story are Barry Marshall and J. Robin Warren. Their findings made them winners of, neither more nor less than, the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
These researchers noticed that only the people who had this bacteria in their stomach suffered ulcers, but they were not able to demonstrate it. As we have previously said, it is a very common bacteria and frequently it is asymptomatic. This made difficult to find a relation between disease and bacteria. Everybody could get infected. There was no relation between the patients data with gastritis regarding food, medication, life style… But what they could do was to culture it at the laboratory. So, when they had the isolated bacteria, Marshall took a sacrificed decision: he decided to swallow an Helicobacter pylori culture. As a result, after a week he started to notice the first symptoms. They could confirm that he had the bacteria on his stomach with a biopsy.
Finally, the story had a happy ending. The ulcers are not a mortal disease, so he could be treated. In fact, till that moment it was believed that it was a psychosomatic disease, caused by stress or anxiety. For that reason, it was simply treated with acid neutralizers, but the symptoms reappeared when the treatment was stopped. Marshall and Warren developed a treatment based on antibiotics and could demonstrate their success in Marshall. Perhaps it seems that Marshall was braver than his partner Warren, but he couldn’t also be a “martyr” because he already suffered of gastric ulcers. We don’t know if he would had also sacrificed for science.
M. Piqueras, (2007), “Microbiology: a dangerous profession?“. Int Microbiol, 10:217-226.