Kate's Comment

Thoughts on British ICT, energy & environment, cloud computing and security from Memset's MD

Helicobacter pylori: From breakthrough to benefit in my lifetime

When I was in my early teens I remember my Dad telling me about the heroic Aussie Dr. Barry Marshall who, in the mid-80’s, turned modern physiology and microbiology upside down when he proved that not only could bacteria live in the acidic environs of the stomach – a notion previously dismissed – but that they had an important role in gastritis and gastric ulcers. Faced with entrenched, dogmatic views and the ridicule of colleagues he proved his theory by self-administering (ie. drinking!) some Helicobacter pylori, which resulted in him developing gastritis in fairly short order!

Among other awards, he and his colleague Dr. Robin Warren were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2005. My educational background is in Biomedical Science and to me this breakthrough is up there with Poland’s Marie Curie, whose similarly maverick and heroic research laid the foundations for our understanding of radioactivity and subsequently our most important weapon in the treatment of cancer, and Scotland’s Alexander Flemming who discovered penicillin, from which we have all benefited from – usually in the form of antibiotics with names ending “cillin”.

I’m writing this post today because I was recently diagnosed with a H. pylori infection. I’ve suffered with gastritis for many years now and it has been getting steadily worse. I’ve had many H. pylori tests over the years, but it was only when I had a gastroscopy last month (never a pleasant experience) and they took biopsies that the little bugger was found. Even then it was only found in one of the samples, showing how hard to detect it can be which likely contributed to the challenges faced by Drs. Marshall and Warren.

I am excited by this because this condition, which plagued my grandfather much of his life without proper remedy (he sadly died before H. pylori testing was commonplace), is now treatable thanks to a discovery made in my formative years! I have actually lived through and subsequently benefited from one of the great scientific breakthroughs of our era, and that is truly wonderful. 🙂

I must confess that the treatment is somewhat less wonderful. Taking 2 grams/day Amoxicillin (one of Dr. Flemming’s legacies, which like penicillin interferes with bacteria’s ability to make links in their peptidoglycan cell wall, causing them to “pop”) and 1 gram/day Clarithromycin (also developed in my lifetime, based on Erythromycin, which interferes with bacteria’s ribosomal RNA and subsequent protein synthesis, inhibiting their growth) is proving quite significantly unpleasant! However, a week of discomfort will most certainly be worth a future of not having to take high doses of ant-acid medications (I’m on both Ranitidine, an H2 antagonist, and Pantoprazole, a proton-pump inhibiter) swigged down with gulps of Gaviscon!

So, to Dr. Barry Marshall, the Australian maverick who risked his own health to drive forwards the advance of science, I say thank you. 🙂

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