Gut instincts

Gut instincts

I’m sure many of us at some point have tried to convince someone about a fact they simply didn’t believe. I can strongly recognise the feeling of desperately wanting to prove something to someone and to be willing to do whatever it takes to convince them, just to proudly say “I told you so”. Sometimes though, this eagerness can end up giving you scars for life! At least it did for me; when I was a kid I burned myself with a car cigarette lighter trying to convince my brother that a car cigarette lighter does indeed burn.

However, being desperate enough to do experiments with your own body might end up giving you the Nobel Prize.

Gastric ulcers and the stress hypothesis

Back in the 1980’s Australian physician Dr. Marshall had for years with horror observed patients suffering from gastric ulcer, some cases so severe the patients would bleed to death. Back then, the prevailing theory was that gastric ulcers were caused by stress. Accordingly, gastric ulcers were treated with psychotherapy or antidepressants. But Marshall developed an alternative theory, when he began to work with Dr. Warren, a pathologist that had discovered that the gut could be invaded by a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori. He was convinced that this spiral-shaped bacterium was the underlying cause of ulcers.

  Image owned by the author. Adapted from Dave Hazzel’s blog

A medical breakthrough

Culturing the organisms from ulcers biopsies from his patients, Marshall linked this bacterium with ulcers. He realised that the cure for H. Pylori infection was readily available: anti­biotics. However, this breakthrough was not acknowledged by other scientists and Marshall and Waren had a hard time convincing others that a bacterium, not stress, caused stomach ulcers.


The doctor who tested a hypothesis by being his own guinea pig

Convinced that he had solved a medical mystery, but unsuccessful to infect an animal model

and unable to use human test persons, he grew desperate and realised that the only person he could recruit for an experiment was himself. Using the don’t ask, don’t tell strategy, Marshall and Waren conducted an experiment in the summer of 1984 that involved Marshall drinking a soup of cultured H. Pylori. Their experiment succeeded: a few days later Marhshall developed classical symptoms of acute gastritis, the precursor of ulcer. He started vomiting, had a stinking breath and had abdominal pain. Before beginning the antibiotic cure, a biopsy from his gut was taken and cultured. Finally, Marshall and Waren had proved their theory; that H. Pylori unequivocally causes gastritis which in turn can lead to the development of ulcers. This medical breakthrough, not only solved a medical mystery, but also meant that patients now could effectively get treatment for gastric ulcers.

The 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine

Although colleagues thought Marshall was completely insane to take this risk, his persistence paid off.  In 2005, Marshall and Waren were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their discovery.

photos sourced from Flickr

So after all, listening to your gut instinct and even take a risk to prove your point might not be such a bad idea, you might ending up saving lives and get the Nobel Prize!





7 Responses to “Gut instincts”

  1. Marie says:

    Thanks everyone for your comments.

  2. Melissa Yoon says:

    Hi Maire,

    Really great article – I don’t think I’d be brave enough to experiment on myself like that, but it just shows how dedicated Dr Marshall was to the science!

  3. Richard Proudlove says:

    Hi Marie. A well written post. I am familiar with the tale, but it is a great story. It inspired me to look for information on other scientists who have experimented on themselves and I stumbled on a New Scientist article – link below. Special mention goes to Stubbins Ffirth, who bathed in and ate vomit from Yellow Fever sufferers in his quest to prove that the disease is not infectious (btw he was wrong – yellow fever is contagious if transmitted directly into the bloodstream – so hold off on that bath):

  4. Teresa Hassett says:

    This is such as cool story – it shows how determined he was to prove his discovery. The title totally drew me in and the story was definitely keeping me going till the end.

  5. Alex Weiss Aparicio says:

    Great post, Marie. I had heard the story before but thought it was just a myth. Thanks for clearing that up : )
    Oh, and I love the anecdote 😀 That was a great hook and a very unexpected (but good) transition sentence.

  6. Alex Weiss Aparicio says:

    Great post, Marie. I had heard the story before but thought it was just a myth. Thanks for clearing that up : )
    Oh, and I love the anecdote 😀 That was a great hook and a very unexpected (but good) transition sentence.

  7. mwatchorn says:

    I love this story; some scientists are willing to go to truly remarkable lengths to test a hypothesis. I do wonder why he wasn’t able to infect an animal model successfully…
    My favourite story like this is Dr Donald Unger, who cracked his knuckles only in one hand for 60 years to prove to his mother knuckle-cracking doesn’t cause arthritis.