Barry J. Marshall has been awarded the Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Medicine 1998 for his pioneering research on ulcers.
Despite the established scientific view that ulcers are brought on by stress, Marshall found that Heliobacter pylori are the real cause. He discovered the role of the bacteria not by means of costly research, but through simple observation. He also found that ulcers can be cured with an antibiotic, and went so far as to verify his theory by taking a gulp of the bacteria and monitoring his own illness and recovery.
In the late 1970s Robin Warren, a pathologist at the Royal Perth Hospital in Australia, recognised spiral-shaped micro-organisms in gastric antrum biopsies. Barry Marshall, then a resident in internal medicine, was invited to conduct a six months of clinical research with Warren. Marshall was quick to recognise the potential significance of these gastric bacteria. Marshall went to great lengths to demonstrate that Heliobacter pylori is indeed the etiologic agent for peptic ulcers.
Although Marshall's work was initially greeted with scepticism, his persistence was eventually rewarded, and today nearly all patients with peptic ulcers are successfully treated with a combination of antibiotics and inhibitors of acid secretion. Nowadays stomach surgery is the exception rather than the rule. Marshall's breakthrough in the treatment of ulcers has meant that patients no longer have to undergo protracted treatment with no guarantee that their ulcers will not return. It has also reduced the risk of stomach cancer, to say nothing of the psychological burden of an ulcer and its impact on a patient's social life. Marshall has proved to be an outstanding patient-oriented scientist, who required no extensive or expensive technological infrastructure to achieve a major breakthrough in clinical medicine.
Barry Marshall was born in 1951 and is professor of internal medicine at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, North Carolina, USA. In the years following his role in the discovery of Heliobacter pylori, Marshal contributed extensively to the study of the epidemiology of Heliobacter pylori infections and disease associations. His work has opened new horizons in our thinking about the pathogenesis of cancer and the role in it that bacterial infections play. Marshall also made great strides in diagnosing Heliobacter pylori infections via serological or breath tests as a form of non-invasive diagnosis, eliminating the need for endoscopy and biopsy. Promising methods of screening asymptomatic persons for Heliobacter pylori in order to detect and prevent a gastric cancer risk are currently under development.