he drank his way to a nobel prize

Dr Barry Marshall an internist and Dr Robin Warren a pathologist at Royal Perth Hospital both suffered from seeing patients with severe acid reflux disease. Some patients had their stomachs removed or bled until they died. In 1981 they began working together to find a cure for GERD and ulcers. Dr Warren had discovered that the patients gut were filled with bacteria shaped like cork screws.

When Dr Warren biopsied ulcer patients he found this bacteria called Helicobacter pylori linked to cancer. He thought the answer of fighting this infection was giving the patients antibiotics but many doctors dismissed this idea because they believed GERD, excessive stomach acid, or ulcers were caused by stress.

Marshall Experiments on Himself

Desperate to test this theory on humans, Dr. Marshall did not think experiments on mice were enough. He decided to use himself as a subject. He took bacteria from the gut of a patient and stirred it into broth and drank it down. Dr. Marshall  developed gastric illness with excess stomach acid.  He began to vomit, had bad breath, and felt exhausted. When he did a of biopsy of his own gut a he found the bacteria to be the cause.  When he told his wife about the experiment she was afraid she would get the illness.

Dr. Marshall did take antibiotics which helped him recover from the infection. He had to stop his experiment to take the drugs to get better. He believes that people get this bacteria when they are children. His findings were published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 1985. In 1981, he met Dr. Warren who said he had seen the bacteria in patients that he biopsied in the lab. He found them in 20 patients. One of the patients had been one of  Dr. Marshalls.

Dr. Marshall set up a clinical trial with about 100 patients in 1982.This bacteria grows slowly and often the lab threw out cultures after two days.  When they let the cultures grow longer they found 13 patients with the bacteria that had ulcers.  Most patients that developed stomach cancer had gastritis. When he presented these finding to the Royal Australian College of Physicians he found they were all skeptical.

Dr. Warren and Dr. Marshall Write Letters Defending Their Discovery

They both wrote letters defending their discovery.  When they requested research grants from major drug companies but were refused due to hard times. One drug company from the US provided them with information on a drug used to treat ulcers. It was called Denel. It destroyed the bacteria in the gut and cured the ulcers. They created an international microbiology conference in Brussels from this information.

The doctors  completed the paper in 1983 but it was rejected. When Dr. Marshall came to the US to work eventually the FDA and NIH supported them in conducting the clinical studies. Between 1993 and 1996 the medical community began to change their opinion of their studies.  Since then they have developed a t breath test that was developed to identify the bacteria that causes acid and ulcers. The test was bought by Kimberly Clark and sold all over the world.

Nobel Prizes in Physiology

In 2005, Dr. Warren and Dr. Marshall were awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology for their work with the Helicobacter pylori bacteria. They were honored for the discovery and its role in ulcers and gastritis. These illnesses were no longer chronic but could be cured with antibiotics and acid serotonin inhibitors.

These doctors were helped millions of patients with GERD that develop acid in the throat, excessive stomach acid, acid reflux and ulcers to live with the illness without pain. They paved the way for the many treatments that have come later. 

By Joan Russell

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