The bug that causes stomach ulcers could help beat allergies.
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).