IS your child constantly in trouble? Do they not do what they are told? Do their school reports say “if only they worked harder”?
Well, maybe they’re a future Nobel Prize winner.
Professor Barry Marshall gave an entertaining and interesting talk at the Albany Town Hall last Tuesday night on “The path to the Nobel Prize”.
He described his early life – growing up in Carnarvon, Kalgoorlie and Scarborough – with his mum working as a nurse and his dad as a diesel engineer, and explained how his school reports said “he didn’t pay attention in class” and “if only he’d work harder”.
He described enjoying the practical side of science – for his year 12 science project he built a refrigerator – and being fascinated by pretty much every part of medicine.
As part of his medical degree he was required to do a science project, and this was where he met Dr Robin Warren.
At the time, hundreds of thousands of Australians suffered from stomach ulcers.
They caused pain, indigestion and sometimes bleeding.
Doctors could diagnose them by endoscopy, which is putting a camera on a tube down your throat but they couldn’t really do much else.
They ended up saying ulcers were caused by stress, or alcohol, or spicy food, and gave treatments that maybe dulled the pain, but that was about all they could do.
Meanwhile, Barry Marshall and Dr Warren were looking at samples of stuff they’d got from people’s stomachs during endoscopies.
They saw there were bacteria (called Helicobacter) living in the stomach.
This was meant to be “pretty much impossible”, Marshall explained.
Your stomach is incredibly acidic and everyone knew that nothing could survive that acid.
When people saw what looked like bacteria in the stomach, they had said it was something else, or explained it away as contaminants, or ignored it completely.
But Dr Marshall and Dr Warren thought it might be important.
They looked at the medical records of people who’d come in for endoscopies and found that close to one
hundred percent of the people who had stomach ulcers had Helicobacter infection. What if you could cure them? There were different types of Helicobacter, and the type they were interested in only grew in people, so animal testing was out.
So Barry Marshall did what seemed obvious to him – and probably completely crazy to everyone else. He had an endoscopy done on himself, to show he didn’t have ulcers (or Helicobacter).
Then he deliberately infected himself by drinking a solution of Helicobacter.
He became sick almost immediately with stomach pain, and bad breath and felt miserable.
His wife – who was previously unaware – found out what he did and was horrified.
But an endoscopy the next week revealed that he had symptoms caused by Helicobacter – and when he treated himself with antibiotics, he was cured.
There was a lot of resistance to Marshall and Warren’s work.
The idea that two doctors in Perth whom no-one had heard of could discover something the big universities in Sydney and Melbourne had missed was inconceivable.
But eventually specialists, almost against their will, were convinced.
The impact of this was almost unbelievable.
Being affected by ulcers previously meant a life-time of pain and worry, and thousands of dollars of medication a year, and the very real risk of sudden and horrible death.
Stomach ulcers killed popes and presidents.
Surgery was dangerous, and the medication had side effects.
But what Marshall and Warren had was a cure. A week of specially selected antibiotics and the problem went away.
The Nobel Prize is the highest honour that medicine can award. There have been only about two hundred given out in more than a century, for things like the discovery of insulin, or fundamental discoveries about immunity or neurotransmission.
Marshall and Warren’s work was not only fundamentally strong, it was courageous, against the odds, and made an incalculable difference to hundreds of millions of lives.
There are people reading this article who are alive because Marshall and Warren didn’t do what they were told.