Today, scientists aren’t just celebrating Easter, they are commemorating the emergence of a quite modest bacterium called Helicobacter pylori. The bacterium contaminates more than 50 percent of the entire globe’s population – most who will never experience or even recognize any of the symptoms that characterize the infection. Yet, it is the perpetrator behind a majorty of the ulcers people develop as well as the culprit behind a number of stomach cancers. H. pylori actually remained concealed and unidentified in human stomachs for thousands of years until 33 years ago. The bacterium is believed so ancient that it tagged along with humans out of Africa. Today, many credit the Easter holiday with its unveiling for reasons soon to be explained here…
The story begins about 35 Easters ago with a pathologist at the Royal Perth Hospital in Australia, Robert Warren. The doctor observed that of all the biopsies he obtained from patients with ulcers and stomach cancers, about half of them simultaneously carried a corkscrew-shaped bacterium later termed Helicobacter pylori.
It wasn’t long before Warren began collaborating in the early 1980s with Barry Marshall, an eager young scientist in mid-training for internal medicine, in an attempt to grow H. pylori for the purpose of studying it further. To begin, the duo had trouble replicating the bacterium which they were trying to cultivate in the agar dishes customarily used for growing Campylobacter, a bacterium responsible for causing food poisoning in human beings. After about two days of zero growth, Warren and Marshall tossed the dishes in trash bins in the lab.
“Anything that didn’t grow in two days didn’t exist. But Heliobacter is slow-growing, we discovered,”
reported Marshall to Discover magazine in 2010. It was the Easter holiday that kept the researchers out of the laboratory for the following four days, only to return to find colonies of H. pylori growing in the lab.
Having an ulcer has been stereotyped as being the result of an unhealthy, overly-stressful lifestyle marked also by bingeing on too much spicy food. That perception has lingered as current thought. However, thanks to Warren and Marshall who were once scoffed at for their contrasting notion, the perception has gradually grown into a medical myth. The doctors were able to support their theory that ulcers are actually caused by infection with succeeding experiments such as one that entailed Marshall infecting himself with H. pylori by drinking a consomme made with the bacteria which caused him to come down with gastritis. Via further experiments, the doctors were also able to prove the correlation between the bacterial infection with some stomach cancers. Flash forward to current times, and scientific journals and academic papers galore have been published on H. pylori.
By closely examining the bacteria’s assorted strains, scientists have tested their theories about how humans colonized Pacific islands about 30,000 years ago. Recent studies indicate that H. pylori may have actually played a significant role in ridding the elder portion of a population to make way for the young. Traces of the microbe have been unearthed in the gastric tissues of 600-year-old Mexican mummies.
Marshall and Warren won the 2005 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine because of their discoveries, and nowadays peptic ulcers can be treated with short courses of antibiotics or over-the-counter acid-relieving medications.