Scientists Win Nobel for Bacterium-Ulcer Link

Australians Robin Warren and Barry Marshall receive the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Their research bucked conventional wisdom, showing that a bacterium, not simply excess stomach acid, causes peptic ulcers. Also, it suggested that bacterium may be a major cause of stomach cancer.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Two Australian scientists will share this year's Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. They bucked conventional wisdom and showed that peptic ulcers are caused by germs rather than simply stomach acid. As a result, most ulcers these days are treated with antibiotics. That treatment can also help reduce the risk of stomach cancer, which is one of the most common malignancies in the world. NPR's Richard Harris has that story.

RICHARD HARRIS reporting:

Medical researchers have long figured that J. Robin Warren and Barry Marshall were on the short list for a Nobel Prize. The main question was when they'd get that fabled call from Sweden. The answer came today.

Dr. BARRY MARSHALL (Nobel Prize Recipient): I was sitting at a table outside a bar having a beer with Professor Warren, and they called him.

HARRIS: Barry Marshall says his-now retired colleague obviously had an interesting conversation, but Dr. Warren was also being coy.

Dr. MARSHALL: He wouldn't say who it was because he was told that he wasn't allowed to tell. And he said, `Can't I tell Dr. Marshall? He's sitting right next to me,' and they said no. And it was only after about five minutes that the secretary agreed to allow Dr. Warren to pass the telephone over to me to hand me the news.

HARRIS: The Nobel secretary's Swedish accent gave it away immediately. Warren would be sharing the $1.3 million Nobel Prize with his former student, Barry Marshall.

The story really started in 1980. Dr. Warren was a pathologist at the Royal Perth Hospital. He isolated some odd-looking bacteria from diseased human stomachs. Dr. Marshall says that in itself was remarkable.

Dr. MARSHALL: It was such a turnaround because the medical books all said that there were no bacteria that could live in the stomach because the stomach was full of acid, so it would kill bacteria.

HARRIS: Marshall's job as a medical student was to talk to the patients and figure out whether the bacteria were causing disease. He came to suspect the answer was yes. The bacteria were found in 80 to 90 percent of the patients with peptic ulcers. But that wasn't proof that the bacterial caused ulcers, and there were plenty of skeptics. They said maybe the bacteria just appeared in people who were already sick with ulcers. Answers didn't come easily.

Dr. MARSHALL: Eventually, after failed experiments for quite a few months, I decided that I should just try the bacteria myself and if I was right, well, then I should develop the gastritis and probably develop an ulcer. So I drank the culture of the bacterium, and after a few days, I started vomiting and this went on for about 10 days, and I had some endoscopies which showed that I had developed the inflammation in the stomach.

HARRIS: Eventually, the world of medicine started to believe. It helped that Marshall was a tireless promoter of the idea, first from The University of Western Australia, and later from the University of Virginia, where his voice could be heard loud and clear in the American medical establishment.

Dr. David Peura took a job at the University of Virginia just so he could work with this dynamic and influential researcher. Peura says in some ways, Marshall did science backwards. He didn't start with the easy stuff, the straight edges of the jigsaw puzzle, so to speak.

Dr. DAVID PEURA (Researcher): He started out with the middle and came up with sort of the big picture. And it took other people, you know, to fill in the edges of the science and what was going on.

HARRIS: That rankled some scientists, Peura says, but it's clear that Dr. Marshall was absolutely right. The bacterium they discovered, called Helicobacter pylori, is now the subject of thousands of medical journal articles. In fact, there's an entire journal devoted to this one germ. And the bacterium is not just involved in ulcers; it may be a major cause of stomach cancer, which is a leading killer in some parts of the world. So this is a case where a scientist's good instincts and confident swagger really did help change the world. Richard Harris, NPR News.

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