We often think of medical science as being cutting edge, focused on exploring the unknown and uncovering the most deadly secrets of the human body. More mundane conditions can fall by the wayside, with doctors and patients falling back on diagnoses and treatments that may be decades old. Such was the case with peptic ulcers, painful sores in the lining of the stomach or intestines that for nearly 100 years had been attributed to stress or spicy foods and treated by popping over-the-counter antacids.
But scientific progress can revolutionize even the most run-of-the-mill afflictions. Based on innovative research led by Australian physicians Dr. Barry Marshall and Dr. Robin Warren, we now know that most ulcers are caused by a bacterium known as Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) that can be eliminated with antibiotic therapy. Enjoy your favorite hot curry and live a road warrior lifestyle; after two-weeks of the new ulcer “triple therapy” drug cocktail you should be in the clear.
The story of how ulcer treatment went from home remedy to cutting edge science is an intriguing one. Marshall and Warren first reported the presence of H. pylori in 1982 in the stomachs of gastritis patients, evidence that ran counter to the long-accepted theory that no bacterium could live in such an acid-rich environment.
Years of conventional wisdom are not overturned overnight, however, and Marshall and Warren soon found themselves at the heart of a debate that took a decade to resolve. Following standard scientific process, other researchers had to first replicate their results and show a correlation between the bacterium and the disease. Definitive results were hampered by the finding that over half of the world’s population are estimated to have H. pylori present in their digestive system (likely transmitted by human contact). Since the odds that an adult has ever had an ulcer are 1 in 15.39—about the odds a woman 50-59 eats candy at least once a day (1 in 15.38)—the majority of people with H. pylori are asymptomatic, and there still is no firm understanding of what makes one individual develop an ulcer and another not.
Determined to overcome the initial skepticism that greeted their discovery, Marshall provided convincing proof of his own by swallowing a beaker of H. pylori and promptly developing his own ulcer. By the 1990s, additional confirming research had turned the tide, and effective antibiotic therapies were developed. In recognition of their role in revolutionizing the diagnosis and treatment of such a prevalent condition, Marshall and Warren were awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology.