The Treatment of Ulcers

Barry Marshall was born in Australia in 1951. He pursued an education in medicine at the University of Western Australia. When he graduated, he led a fellowship at the Royal Perth Hospital. As a practitioner, he was seeing 1-2 patients each day with bleeding ulcers. He decided to make the treatment of ulcers his research project.

At the time, stomach ulcers were a major problem. The ulcers would allow stomach fluids to burn into other tissues. In the 1970s, a drug was developed that decreased the acidity of the stomach fluid reducing the pain of the ulcer. The drug became the most widely prescribed drug in the world and was the first drug to exceed one billion dollars in sales. But it did not cure the ulcer.

Dr. Marshall met Dr. Robin Warren, a pathologist, who believed that ulcers were caused by a bacterium, not the commonly associated causes at the time: stress, spicy foods, and alcohol. No one else believed this because they believed that bacterium could not live in the environment of the stomach.

Dr.’s Marshall and Warren discovered that a bacterium (H. Pylori) was in 90% of the stomachs of patients with stomach ulcers. To validate their theory, they attempted to grow the bacteria from ulcerated stomachs in petri dishes. The results were a disaster until a lab technician made a mistake. Normally samples were discarded after two days if no results appeared. But over Easter weekend, the samples remained longer in the petri dishes and bacteria did in fact appear.

Then Dr. Marshall tried to kill the bacteria. At first, his treatment didn’t work until he had a patient who was also undergoing treatment for another disease. The combination of the two treatments was successful.

When Dr.’s Marshall and Warren attempted to publish their work, they were rejected. Without support from the medical community, they could not receive approval for medical trials. Dr. Marshall decided to run tests on himself. The tests proved successful.

But the medical community still did not accept the results, in part because the treatment would generate few revenues. It wasn’t until the treatment was picked up in the popular press that more and more people volunteered for testing.

The treatment protocols developed by Dr.’s Marshall and Warren are now standard practice for the treatment of ulcers. In 2005, Dr.’s Marshall and Warren were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work.

Beginnings are often ridiculed at first. Challenges to accepted orthodoxy are never well received. One would think that the scientific community would be more accepting, but that is often not the case.

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“The moment when you feel like giving up is right before your breakthrough.” – Victoria Arlen (Journalist)

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