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If you like Barry Marshall's story, you might also like:
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Gertrude B. Elion,
David Ho,
Judah Folkman,
Susan Hockfield,
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Barry Marshall
Barry Marshall
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Barry Marshall Interview (page: 4 / 8)

Nobel Prize in Medicine

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  Barry Marshall

So you did some of your important research through searching existing literature. But you had to test this hypothesis in the lab. That was a different challenge, wasn't it?

Barry Marshall: That's true. We started off being very successful with patients when we first started treating them. They would tell us that this new treatment was much better than what they had been taking.

One of my little discoveries was I discovered that these bacteria were killed by Pepto-Bismol. We started giving a combination of a Pepto-Bismol type drug with an antibiotic, and about 1994 we had a 75 percent cure rate. So we were able to say, "Okay, if these bacteria are causing trouble, let's eradicate them," and the patients felt better. But everybody has a treatment which supposedly works, and until you've done the double-blind studies, the medical fraternity are very skeptical. So I didn't expect that to be accepted.

You presented this in Belgium, didn't you?

Barry Marshall: I presented that in Belgium, but I'd actually submitted it to the gastroenterology meeting in Australia first.

What did they do?

Barry Marshall: Well,

They said, "Dear Dr. Marshall, we're so sorry that we couldn't accept your abstract. It was such a high standard this year, we had 67 applications and we could only accept 64." So mine was in the bottom 10 percent. Looking back at it I can say it was pushing it a bit to try and get it accepted, but it's fun to have the rejection letter after all these years. My boss knew about the conference in Brussels, so he said, "Don't be downhearted, I still think it's good. You go to Belgium." The hospital paid my airfare, and I connected up with some researchers in Belgium, and made phone calls and whatever, and presented it in Belgium, and that's when it sort of hit the news.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Some of your colleagues thought the way you presented it was a little crass, didn't they?

Barry Marshall: Well, I was fairly confident at that stage, and I was sticking my neck out.

I knew there'd be a lot of Americans there. And we were then challenging for the America's Cup. And so, in fact, I got up and I really threw down the gauntlet. My first slide was a photo of Perth in Western Australia, lovely river and sea, and a yacht. And I said, "This is Perth, Western Australia, and this is the yacht that's going to win the America's Cup in 19..." I think it was '86 or '87. And everybody, "Ahh!" You know, paper balls were being thrown at me. And then I went on to present the new bacteria. I wasn't totally alone though, because I had connected up with the head bacteriologist in England who was interested in that species or that type of bacteria. I'd visited with him for a couple of days before the conference and he had kind of given me a little more confidence than usual, and backed me up on it. As he introduced me, he said, "Well, this is Barry Marshall. He's got this wonderful, interesting new bacteria." So although people were skeptical, and they all went home with the aim of trying to prove me wrong, that's how science moves forward. Someone has a hypothesis and you say, "Okay, if I can prove it wrong, I can publish a paper saying he's wrong." Gradually, over the next few years, one by one, these people trying to prove me wrong fell by the wayside and actually converted over to my side, and became experts in their own right, in helicobacter.

It's often said that science is a matter of study, waiting, careful observation, but sometimes there are instances of happenstance, luck, serendipity. Didn't you have a lucky break when you were trying to grow the bacteria?

Barry Marshall: That's correct.

We were persistent. We were reading the literature, and as far as we could tell this was similar to some bacteria that had been grown from mice, spiral bacteria. So we were using the same media and the same atmosphere and sending biopsies down, looking under the microscope for bacteria there. I'd come down to the lab a few days later and I'd say, "Did it grow?" "No, sorry, it didn't grow." So this went for about six months, and then I did some biopsies just before Easter. We have a very long Easter break, a four day holiday, in Australia. Luckily, there's no separation of church and state in Australia, because you wouldn't have had this holiday in the U.S. Anyway, we took biopsies on a Thursday and they were in the incubator Friday and Saturday. The technologist was so busy on Saturday morning, he left the research material there and just looked after the important, human, normal, routine biopsies. So he didn't look at these biopsies from Thursday until Tuesday morning, and then I got a phone call, "Barry, come down to the lab! We think we've grown these bacteria." I came down and I was talking to them and I said, "Why didn't we grow them before?" And they said, "We routinely throw the plates out after two days if nothing is showing up." And of course, helicobacters need at least three -- usually four -- days to show up on the plates.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Barry Marshall Interview Photo
E-coli grows overnight, and people are just used to these kinds of bacteria. You get something a big sluggish, like helicobacter, and you really have to wait the four days. We had probably been growing them with the correct method for about three months. Of course, they would usually give my work to the lowest technologist in the lab to do, after everything else. He'd been throwing them in the trash after two days. I was like, "How can I cope with this?" So maybe a little lesson, that I needed to be carefully involved in everything after that. But that was the breakthrough, because after that we could identify that those bacteria were definitely abnormal and not normally present. They grew under certain conditions, and could be killed by certain antibiotics.

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This page last revised on Sep 23, 2010 16:34 EDT
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