Two Australians win Nobel Prize for showing microbe causes ulcers

Monday, October 3rd 2005, 11:44 am
By: News On 6

STOCKHOLM, Sweden (AP) _ Australians Barry J. Marshall and Robin Warren won the 2005 Nobel Prize in medicine Monday for showing that bacterial infection, not stress, was to blame for painful ulcers in the stomach and intestine.

The 1982 discovery transformed peptic ulcer disease from a chronic, frequently disabling condition to one that can be cured by a short regimen of antibiotics and other medicines, the Nobel Prize committee said.

Thanks to their work, it has now been established that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, which the new Nobel winners discovered, is the most common cause of peptic ulcers.

After proposing that idea, Marshall and Warren had to persevere in the face of skepticism. Marshall even deliberately infected himself with the bacterium in 1985 and showed it caused stomach inflammation, a potential precursor of an ulcer.

The Australians' idea was ``very much against prevailing knowledge and dogma because it was thought that peptic ulcer disease was the result of stress and lifestyle,'' Staffan Normark, a member of the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska institute, said at a news conference.

Warren told The Associated Press that it took a decade for others to accept their findings.

``For about a hundred years, or a thousand years, the standard teaching in medicine was that ... the stomach was sterile and nothing grew there because of corrosive gastric juices,'' he said. ``So everybody believed there were no bacteria in the stomach.''

``When I said they were there, no one believed it,'' he added.

Marshall said the pair began working together in 1981. ``After about three years we were pretty convinced that these bacteria were important in ulcers and it was a frustrating time for the next 10 years though because nobody believed us,'' he said.

``The idea of stress and things like that was just so entrenched nobody could really believe that it was bacteria. It had to come from some weird place like Perth, Western Australia because I think nobody else would have even considered it.''

Marshall, 54, and Warren, 68, celebrated their new honor with champagne and beer.

``Obviously, it's the best thing that can ever happen to somebody in medical research. It's just incredible,'' Marshall told said by telephone from the Western Australia state capital, Perth, where the pair were celebrating with family members.

Warren said he was ``very excited also a little overcome,'' at the honor.

The discovery has stimulated research into microbes as possible reasons for other chronic inflammatory conditions, such as Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis and atherosclerosis, the assembly said in its citation.

Warren, a pathologist from Perth, Australia, ``observed small curved bacteria colonizing the lower part of the stomach in about 50 percent of patients from which biopsies had been taken,'' the Nobel Assembly said. ``He made the crucial observation that signs of inflammation were always present ... close to where the bacteria were seen.''

Marshall became interested in Warren's findings and together they initiated a study of biopsies from 100 patients.

``After several attempts, Marshall succeeded in cultivating a hitherto unknown bacterial species _ later denoted Helicobacter pylori _ from several of these biopsies,'' the assembly said. ``Together they found that the organism was present in almost all patients with gastric inflammation, duodenal ulcer or gastric ulcer.''

Marshall's success at cultivating the bacterium was in part a lucky break. After failing to do so, he accidentally left a sample in his lab over the Easter holiday in 1982.

When he returned five days later, the bacterium had cultivated, said Nobel Assembly member Sten Grillner.

``It was kind of an accident,'' Grillner told the AP. ``But then many great discoveries are made by a combination of an accident and the prepared mind.''

By culturing the bacterium, Marshall and Warren were able to make studying it and the illnesses easier.

``It is now firmly established that Helicobacter pylori causes more than 90 percent of duodenal ulcers and up to 80 percent of gastric ulcers,'' the assembly said in its citation.

Marshall is a researcher at the University of Western Australia in Nedlands. Warren retired in 1999 from a pathology position at the Royal Perth Hospital.

The coveted award honoring achievements in medical research opened this year's series of prize announcements. It will be followed by prizes for physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics.

The medicine prize is awarded by the Karolinska institute in Stockholm as stated in the will of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish industrialist who founded the prestigious awards in 1895.

The winners were picked by the institute's Nobel Assembly.

The process for selecting winners is extremely secretive _ nominations are kept sealed for 50 years _ leaving Nobel-watchers little to go on in their speculation.

The medicine prize includes a check for $1.3 million, a diploma, gold medal and a handshake with the king of Sweden at the award ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10.

Warren and Marshall are not the first Australians to win a Nobel Prize.

In 1973, Patrick White, the author of ``The Aunt's Story'' and ``The Tree of Man'' was awarded the 1973 Nobel Prize in literature.

Other Australian winners include John Warcup Cornforth, who won the chemistry award in 1975, and medicine winners Sir Howard Walter Florey (1945), Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet (1960), Sir John Carew Eccles (1963) and Peter C. Doherty (1996).

Last year's laureates, Americans Richard Axel and Linda B. Buck, won for discovering how people can recognize an estimated 10,000 odors and remember them.