The Man Who Tried to Give Himself An Ulcer… For Science

Here at SciShow, we don’t like to indulge
the idea of the ‘mad scientist.’ But sometimes scientists do live up to the
stereotype, and resort to doing things most of us would never do. Like experimenting on themselves to prove
a point. In 1984, an Australian doctor named Barry
Marshall infected himself with a bunch of dangerous bacteria on purpose. It sounds pretty stupid. Like, maybe don’t try that at home. But by doing that, he showed the world that
most stomach ulcers are actually an infectious disease and saved a lot of people’s lives. Ulcers are painful sores in the stomach or
upper part of the intestine, and they aren’t just uncomfortable. If they get bad enough, patients can start
bleeding, or their stomach can burst — things that can be deadly. Back in the 1970s, ulcers were most common
in middle-aged men who smoked and drank, and they seemed to run in families. Doctors assumed ulcers happened when people
made too much stomach acid, and were a product of hard-living and some bad luck in the gene
department. The typical advice was to slow down, watch
what you put into your body, and take some antacids. They also thought that the stomach was sterile
— completely bacteria-free. But in 1979, an Australian pathologist named
Robin Warren began to question that common wisdom. He was regularly seeing comma-shaped bacteria
in the samples from patients who had inflammation in their stomach tissue, or what’s called
gastritis. He and Barry Marshall set up a formal study
and found that nearly all of their ulcer patients were infected with the bacteria, too. They identified the bug as Helicobacter pylori,
and suspected that it might be the actual reason why people developed ulcers. But few physicians were convinced. The idea seemed absurd. How could bacteria even survive in the highly
acidic stomach? And if this was true, why hadn’t anyone
figured it out before? By 1984, Marshall was confident of his results,
and frustrated that other people weren’t convinced. He decided to do something radical. After making sure he had no H. pylori of his
own, he became his own guinea pig, and in one gulp of meat broth at 10 in the morning,
he swallowed a bunch of the bacteria on purpose. Sure enough, within a few days he wasn’t
feeling so great. He had indigestion, nausea, and bad breath
— and began vomiting. It wasn’t actually an ulcer, but it was
close. It was gastritis. And it showed that H. pylori wasn’t just
along for the ride. It was the problem. The bug was attacking the stomach lining,
and opening that tissue up to more damage from all the natural acid sloshing around
to break down food. The infection usually takes a while to cause
a problem, and the symptoms can be made worse by things like smoking and stress, which is
why older guys with less-than-stellar health records seemed to be the most susceptible. But without H. pylori, most people would never
get ulcers. Marshall and Warren went on to demonstrate
that certain drugs could get rid of H. pylori and cure ulcers, saving countless lives. The Australian duo was awarded the 2005 Nobel
prize in Medicine for their groundbreaking work. And their disco-era discovery turned out to
have an even bigger impact than anyone imagined. As more and more people got antibiotics to
cure their ulcers, cases of stomach cancer plummeted. Today, the World Health Organization recognizes
H. pylori as a carcinogen. The same damage the bacteria does to the lining
of the stomach with an ulcer also causes gastric cancer. It’s a huge public health victory — in
part, thanks to one man’s willingness to make himself sick. So, a bacteria that causes ulcers and cancer?! Definitely want to get rid of that, right? Well, it turns out that it’s not so simple. That’s because while most ulcers are caused
by H. pylori, most people with H. pylori don’t develop ulcers — and even fewer get cancer. Having it around might even help. H. pylori seems to protect people from developing
heartburn and from getting cancer in the esophagus and the upper stomach. Scientists aren’t totally sure why this
is the case, but they think the bacteria might help cut down on acid reflux. With less acid bathing those tissues, you’re
less likely to damage them and begin growing a tumor. Unfortunately, you can’t get the best of
both worlds. The strains of H. pylori that are the most
dangerous to the stomach are also the most protective to the esophagus. It’s one or the other! So, given that it’s a trade-off anyway,
doctors generally agree that it makes sense to leave the bacteria in the stomach unless
it starts causing a problem. And if it does, antibiotics to the rescue! Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow. To learn more about how the bacteria in your
gut affect your health, including how fecal transplants have become the hottest new treatment
for certain infections, check out our video about the microbiome.

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