Two Australians won the Nobel prize for medicine on Monday for showing that a bacterium rather than stress causes stomach inflammation and ulcers, after one of them drank a witches’ brew of bacteria to prove the point.
Experts said the discovery of the Helicobacter pylori bacterium by Barry Marshall and Robin Warren in 1982 was met with skepticism by the medical community, which did not think bacteria could survive in the acid conditions of the stomach.
Marshall resorted to drinking a culture of the bacteria to give himself an ulcer and then to treat himself.
The findings eventually forced drug firms to rethink treatment of a condition that affects millions of people in a market worth billions of dollars.
“Thanks to the pioneering discovery by Marshall and Warren, peptic ulcer disease is no longer a chronic, frequently disabling condition, but a disease that can be cured by a short regimen of antibiotics and acid secretion inhibitors,” said the Nobel Assembly of Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute.
Warren, 68, and Marshall, 54, share the 10 million crowns prize.
Warren said he and Marshall were sitting in a restaurant in Perth, Western Australia, when he got the call from Stockholm telling him they had won the prize.
“I was shocked,” Warren was quoted by Swedish news agency TT as saying. “When they first rang, I did not believe that it was true, that it really was the Nobel committee.”
Lord May of Oxford, president of Britain’s Royal Society of leading scientists, said Marshall’s “extraordinary act” of becoming his own guinea pig showed outstanding dedication.
With some scientists calling their findings “preposterous”, Marshall drank a broth of bacteria to show that the presence of H pylori in people with ulcers was no coincidence.
“I planned to give myself an ulcer, then treat myself, to prove that H. pylori can be a pathogen in normal people,” he told a scientific review.
By Patrick Lannin