Barry Marshall recently sat down with DISCOVER senior editor Pam Weintraub in a Chicago hotel, wearing blue jeans and drinking bottled water without a trace of Helicobacter. The man The Star once called “the guinea-pig doctor” can now talk about his work with the humor and passion of an outsider who has been vindicated. For their work on H. pylori, Marshall and Warren shared a 2005 Nobel Prize. Today the standard of care for an ulcer is treatment with an antibiotic. And stomach cancer—once one of the most common forms of malignancy—is almost gone from the Western world.
In 1981 an internist named Barry Marshall began working with Robin Warren, the Royal Perth Hospital pathologist who, two years earlier, discovered the gut could be overrun by hardy, corkscrew-shaped bacteria called Helicobacter pylori. Biopsying ulcer patients and culturing the organisms in the lab, Marshall traced not just ulcers but also stomach cancer to this gut infection. The cure, he realized, was readily available: antibiotics. But mainstream gastroenterologists were dismissive, holding on to the old idea that ulcers were caused by stress.
Unable to make his case in studies with lab mice (because H. pylori affects only primates) and prohibited from experimenting on people, Marshall grew desperate. Finally he ran an experiment on the only human patient he could ethically recruit: himself. He took some H. pylori from the gut of an ailing patient, stirred it into a broth, and drank it. As the days passed, he developed gastritis, the precursor to an ulcer: He started vomiting, his breath began to stink, and he felt sick and exhausted. Back in the lab, he biopsied his own gut, culturing H. pylori and proving unequivocally that bacteria were the underlying cause of ulcers.
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