Friday, 7 October 2005

The Nobel for medicine

From a discussion I was having at lunch a few days back: here's the news that the Nobel for Medicine was won by Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren, who discovered that stomach ulcers were caused by H. pylori bacteria, not stress. Figured they would get it sooner or later, and they deserve it - must have struggled against ridiculous odds (and an odd amount of ridicule, probably) to overturn conventional wisdom.

I wonder whether their being Australian helped them, in that they were more distant from the 'traditional' centres of medical research in the US / Western Europe and so were not as saddled with the prevailing thinking. (Looking at the list of previous winners, the most recent non-US/Europe winner was Peter C. Doherty, another Aussie, but he did his research in the US. Can't figure out the last winner of the Nobel for Medicine who did his or her work outside the US or Europe, but then I'm too lazy to click every year, so I stopped in 1980.)

I'm sure that sense of them being distant could have hurt them quite a bit, seeing that they were challenging received wisdom - they could easily have been dismissed, and it is a testament to their perseverance and to the scientific process that their work has been recognised.

Helicobacter pylori and Ulcers: a Paradigm Revised (incidentally, nice to see "paradigm" used in the Thomas Kuhn Structure of Scientific Revolutions sense, not the business-jargon one).

Oh, what a famous story that everyone ought to know! Barry Marshall convinced the medical community in a tour de force of growing a test-tube of H. pylori and swallowing it, thus giving himself stomach ulcers, and then curing himself by administering antibiotics.

There is a parable lurking in this real life story, but I will leave it unsaid.

Dude, Thomas Kuhn is such a sexy bastard. I read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions my senior year in high school (everyone in the IB program was forced to), and now we can't use the word "paradigm" without shuddering.

The discovery of H. Pylori revolutionised the treatment of stomach ulcers. Now we can diagnose H Pylori infection via a breathalyser test and treat it with antibiotics instead of surgery. It's amazing.

Points for trivia:

1) Prior to their discovery, no one had been able to isolate the pathogen causing gastric ulcers because H. pylori takes more than the conventional 24-48 hours to culture - it takes at least 72 hours! And they cultured it by accident - someone left the agar plates over the Easter holidays.

2) The team self-administered H. pylori - no ethics committee would have approved a study on unsuspecting volunteers.

3) no more vagotomies!!!

4) Apparently the Australian government was so skeptical of their findings, they only received NHMRC funding after rumours that they were in the running for the Nobel Prize started circulating.

5) H. pylori isn't the be-all and end-all of gastric ulcers; increased gastric acid secretion has been linked with stress levels and the majority of H. pylori carriers are asymptomatic.

6) Now, if only a simple and elegant solution to migraines existed....

elia: the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

screwy: first time i've seen thomas kuhn and sexy used in the same sentence.

tscd: does it make you sad that all that surgery was performed perhaps needlessly?

andrew: thanks for all the information, and for introducing the word "vagotomies" to my vocabulary.

Apparently he owns a sports car with a number plate named after, guess what, the bacteria. Thats what my sister told me, shes in the same science department as he is.

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