Microbiome Monday: The Bacteria and "The Guinea Pig Doctor"

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Welcome to another Microbiome Monday! The Museum’s new special exhibition The Secret World Inside You is now open, and we're bringing you weekly primers on the human microbiome and the research surrounding it from Curators Rob DeSalle and Susan Perkins, as well as from other scientists who are working in this exciting field.

Last week, we looked at some of the many microbes that live inside your colon. Your whole digestive tract, though, is populated by a huge variety of microbes that affect your health, sometimes in surprising ways. Today, we introduce Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium that lives in the stomach where it is associated with some health problems, but that may also be defending your body from other ailments.

H pylori

Helicobacter pylori viewed through an electron microscope.

Courtesy of Y. Tsutsumi/Fujita Health University School of Medicine


In the mid-1980s, internist Barry J. Marshall tested, and proved, his theory that ulcers could be cured with antibiotics by infecting himself with the corkscrew-shaped bacterium Helicobacter pylori. This not only earned him the nickname “guinea pig doctor” but also the Nobel Prize, which he shared in 2005 with pathologist J. Robin Warren for their discovery that H. pylori caused gastritis (irritation or inflammation of the stomach lining) and peptic ulcers, diseases that were long thought to be caused by excess acid resulting from stress. 

Their work led to the near-eradication of stomach ulcers in developed countries through treatment with antibiotics, as well as to a drop in stomach cancers, for which gastritis is a risk factor. But as welcome as these cures are, researchers now think H. pylori isn’t just a pathogen. Studies strongly suggest that it is essential to the prevention of asthma, allergies, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and esophageal cancer.

Want to learn more about the complex roles microbes play in our lives? Check out the November 2014 SciCafe talk from microbiome expert Dr. Martin Blaser, which delves into the findings of recent studies on H. pylori.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall issue of the Member magazine Rotunda.