Michael Mosley

The bug that causes stom­ach ul­cers could help beat al­ler­gies.

Focus-Science and Technology - - CONTENTS -

It is thought that up to two-thirds of the world’s pop­u­la­tion are in­fected with H. py­lori, but it doesn’t cause symp­toms in every­one.

Re­cently, I re­turned from a trip to Perth, West­ern Aus­tralia, where I met one of my med­i­cal he­roes, Prof Barry Mar­shall. Not only did his re­search im­prove the lives of mil­lions of peo­ple, it also changed my life, in a strange and un­pre­dictable way. And it turns out that there is a new and un­ex­pected twist to his work.

Back in 1993, I was a pushy as­sis­tant pro­ducer work­ing in the BBC sci­ence se­ries depart­ment. I was des­per­ate to make a pro­gramme for Hori­zon and was fish­ing around for ideas to pitch.

I came across an ar­ti­cle about two Perth-based re­searchers, Barry Mar­shall and Robin War­ren, who were mak­ing some ex­tra­or­di­nary claims about stom­ach ul­cers – painful sores in the stom­ach lin­ing. Back then, ul­cers were com­mon and con­sid­ered in­cur­able, and the stan­dard ad­vice if you had one was to eat bland food, change your stress­ful life­style and take a drug to re­duce acid pro­duc­tion. If that didn’t work, and it of­ten didn’t, you might find your­self hav­ing parts of your stom­ach and small bowel re­moved. But Barry and Robin were ar­gu­ing that most ul­cers are not caused by stress, as was com­monly be­lieved, but were the re­sult of in­fec­tion by a pre­vi­ously un­known bac­terium that they had iden­ti­fied and named Heli­cobac­ter py­lori.

To make his point, Barry swal­lowed a flask of H. py­lorii bac­te­ria.. A few days later, he started vom­it­ing. He had him­self en­do­scoped and sam­ples of his now in­flamed stom­ach lin­ing were re­moved. These showed that his stom­ach had been colonised by H. py­lori. Af­ter 10 days, he took an­tibi­otics, which he had shown could kill the bac­te­ria, and was soon back to nor­mal.

He did that ex­per­i­ment in 1984 and de­spite the fact that he and Robin, and many oth­ers, demon­strated the ef­fec­tive­ness of this ap­proach, most of the ex­perts I in­ter­viewed for my 1994 film, Ul­cer Wars, still dis­missed Barry’s work out of hand. One of the ex­perts said he re­fused to be­lieve a ma­jor break­through could have come out of an “aca­demic back­wa­ter like Perth”.

So I was de­lighted, 10 years af­ter my film went out, when Barry and Robin won the No­bel Prize for Medicine for their work. It is now stan­dard prac­tice to look for H. py­lori in­fec­tion when peo­ple have stom­ach ul­cers.

In­spired by Barry’s ex­am­ple,

I de­cided to pitch to the BBC a se­ries on the his­tory of medicine, told through the sto­ries of self-ex­per­i­menters. It took me 13 years to get Med­i­cal Mavericks com­mis­sioned, by which point I was no longer be­hind the cam­era but in front of it. My style of pre­sent­ing in­volves a high de­gree of self-ex­per­i­ment­ing.

The twist to this par­tic­u­lar story, which I promised at the be­gin­ning of this ar­ti­cle, is that hav­ing spent the last cou­ple of decades try­ing to erad­i­cate H. py­lori, Barry and his team are now try­ing to rein­tro­duce it into peo­ple’s lives. They’ve dis­cov­ered that it is a pow­er­ful sup­pres­sor of the im­mune sys­tem and could be used to treat al­ler­gic dis­eases, such as eczema and asthma, in young chil­dren. They have car­ried out re­search in an­i­mals and have shown that a safe form of H. py­lori can in­deed re­duce signs and symp­toms of al­ler­gic dis­ease. Watch this space.


Michael is a sci­ence writer and broad­caster, wwho presents Trust Me, I’m m ADoc­tor on BBC Twwo. His lat­est book is The Clever Guts Diet (££8.99, Short Books).

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