[Editor’s Note: Welcome to Leaps of the Past, a new monthly column that spotlights the fascinating backstory behind a medical or scientific breakthrough from history.]
Until about 40 years ago, ulcers were a mysterious – and sometimes deadly – ailment. Found in a person’s stomach lining or intestine, ulcers are small sores that cause a variety of painful symptoms, such as vomiting, a burning or aching sensation, internal bleeding and stomach obstruction. Patients with ulcers suffered for years without a cure and sometimes even needed their stomachs completely removed to rid them from pain.
In the early 1980s, the majority of scientists thought that ulcers were caused by stress or poor diet. But a handful of scientists had a different theory: They believed that ulcers were caused by a corkscrew-shaped bacterium called Helicobacter pylori, or H. pylori for short. Robin Warren, a pathologist, and Barry Marshall, an internist, were the two pioneers of this theory, and the two teamed up to study H. pylori at the Royal Perth Hospital in 1981.
The pair started off by trying to culture the bacteria in the stomachs of patients with gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach lining and a precursor to developing an ulcer. Initially, the microbiologists involved in their clinical trial found no trace of the bacteria from patient samples – but after a few weeks, the microbiologists discovered that their lab techs had been throwing away the cultures before H. pylori could grow. “After that, we let the cultures grow longer and found 13 patients with duodenal ulcer,” said Marshall in a later interview. “All of them had the bacteria.”
Marshall and Warren also cultured H. pylori in the stomachs of patients with stomach cancer. They observed that “everybody with stomach cancer developed it on a background of gastritis. Whenever we found a person without Helicobacter, we couldn’t find gastritis either.” Marshall and Warren were convinced that H. pylori not only caused gastritis and peptic ulcers, but stomach cancer as well.
But when the team presented their findings at an annual meeting of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in Perth, they were mostly met with skepticism. “To gastroenterologists, the concept of a germ causing ulcers was like saying the Earth is flat,” Marshall said. “The idea was too weird.”
Warren started treating his gastritis patients with antibiotics with great success – but other internists remained doubtful, continuing to treat their patients with antacids instead. Making matters more complicated, neither Warren nor Marshall could readily test their theory, since the pair only had lab mice at their disposal and H. pylori infects only humans and non-human primates, such as rhesus monkeys.
So Marshall took an unconventional approach. First, he underwent two tests to get a baseline reading of his stomach, which showed no presence of H. pylori. Then, Marshall took some H. pylori bacteria from a petri dish, mixed it with beef extract to create a broth, and gulped it down. If his theory was correct, a second gastric biopsy would show that his stomach was overrun with H. pylori bacteria, and a second endoscopy would show a painfully inflamed stomach – gastritis.
Less than a week later, Marshall started feeling sick. “I expected to develop an asymptomatic infection,” he later said in an interview published in the Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology. “… [but] after five days, I started to have bloating and fullness after the evening meal, and my appetite decreased. My breath was bad and I vomited clear watery liquid, without acid, each morning.”
At his wife’s urging, Marshall started on a regimen of antibiotics to kill off the burgeoning bacteria, so a follow-up biopsy showed no signs of H. pylori. A follow-up endoscopy, however, showed “severe active gastritis” along with epithelial damage. This was the smoking gun other clinicians needed to believe that H. pylori caused gastritis and stomach cancer. When they began to treat their gastritis patients with antibiotics, the rate of peptic ulcers in the Australian population diminished by 70 percent.
In 2005, Marshall and Warren were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of H. Pylori and its role in developing gastritis and peptic ulcers. “Thanks to the pioneering discovery by Marshall and Warren, peptic ulcer disease is no longer a chronic, frequently disabling condition, but a disease that can be cured by a short regimen of antibiotics and acid secretion inhibitors,” the Nobel Prize Committee said.
Today, antibiotics are the standard of care for anyone afflicted with gastritis – and stomach cancer has been significantly reduced in the Western world.