Nobel given for dispelling ulcer myth

Associated Press
Published October 4, 2005

Dr. Barry Marshall was so determined to convince the world that bacteria - not stress - caused ulcers that he drank a batch of it.

Five days later he was throwing up, and he had severe stomach inflammation for about two weeks.

It was just the result he was hoping for. His bold action more than 20 years ago symbolized the perseverance Marshall brought to proving a controversial idea - one that gained the ultimate validation Monday as he and Dr. Robin Warren won the Nobel Prize in medicine.

The discovery by the two Australians that ulcers weren't caused by stress, but rather by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori , turned medical dogma on its head. As a result, peptic ulcer disease has been transformed from a chronic, frequently disabling condition to one that can be cured by a short regimen of antibiotics and other medicines, said the Nobel Assembly of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.

Their work has stimulated research into microbes as possible reasons for other chronic inflammatory conditions, such as Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis and atherosclerosis, the Nobel assembly said.

Warren, a retired pathologist, said it took a decade for others to accept their findings.

The long-standard teaching in medicine was that "the stomach was sterile and nothing grew there because of corrosive gastric juices," he said. "So everybody believed there were no bacteria in the stomach.

"When I said they were there, no one believed it."

Marshall, a researcher at the University of Western Australia, wrote that he consumed the germ-laden drink because it was impossible to infect rats, mice and pigs. The experiment helped establish that the bacteria came first, causing inflammation, then ulcers.

"I didn't actually develop an ulcer, but I did prove that a healthy person could be infected by these bacteria, and that was an advance because the skeptics were saying that people with ulcers somehow had a weakened immune system and that the bacteria were infecting them after the event."

The discovery came about after Warren had observed bacteria colonizing the lower part of the stomach of patients and noted that signs of inflammation were always present close to the bacteria. Marshall became interested in Warren's findings, and they began working together in 1981.

Marshall also succeeded in cultivating the previously unknown bacterium from patient biopsies, in part because he accidentally left a sample in his lab over the Easter holiday in 1982 - unwittingly giving his cultures time enough for success.