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If you like Barry Marshall's story, you might also like:
Elizabeth Blackburn,
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: 5 / 8)

Nobel Prize in Medicine

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  Barry Marshall

You had all of these people working to test the theory and some of them actually trying to puncture it, but you were continuing at the same time to further research all of this, and were trying to get the bacteria to grow in animals. Why were you taking the animal route?

Barry Marshall Interview Photo
Barry Marshall: To prove a new infectious agent is actually the cause of a disease, you have to do what's called Koch's Postulates. Robert Koch was a German microbiologist. He did most of his famous work in the 1880s. He actually promulgated and published his Koch's Postulates for tuberculosis in 1884. It was 100 years later that I did my famous experiment, which I'll tell you about later. But Robert Koch had the problem that half the people walking around in the streets in Frankfurt, the poor people, were coughing up tuberculosis bacteria, but didn't necessarily have active TB, or weren't particularly sick. So a lot of skeptics believed that his Koch's bacillus was just a harmless bacteria that lived in sputum. So Robert Koch said, "Let's do this experiment." You have to get the bacteria and grow it in a culture. Then you get part of the culture and you inoculate that into the animal. Show that the animal then develops the same disease that the human had, and then show that you can once more isolate the bacterium from the disease. Usually you do this experiment, in animals, to fulfill Koch's Postulates.

We had an experiment that was funded where we would have little baby piglets and we would give them some helicobacter each week. Then, a week later, we would do an endoscopy on them to see if the bacteria were causing any inflation in the stomach. Now piglets grow like you wouldn't believe. In the Midwest, people know how quickly they grow. So after three months of this experiment, I had 70-pound pigs that I was wrestling each week trying to do an endoscopy on, and it was a big mess, and the bacteria didn't take. Whenever I presented my work, the skeptics would get up and say, "Well, Dr. Marshall, that's all very nice, but let's face it. You know, people with ulcers have got such a disturbed physiology in their stomach, and these bacteria are so common, that they must just be harmless, and they're just colonizing the people with the ulcers." So I had to prove that the bacteria could infect a normal, healthy animal, cause the disease. Then I had to fish the bacteria up afterwards.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Is it frustrating when you're at that point in your research and things are not going your way and people are weighing in with those kinds of dismissive remarks?

Barry Marshall: I'm a lot more mature now, and I know that this is how science works. You've got to be pretty thick-skinned and ready to take the blows. In those days, it used to really cut me to the quick when people -- even my boss -- would get up and criticize my work this way. I was a... "brash young man" is a term that came out of the Reader's Digest article many years ago. "Zealot" was another of the names that I was given. I read the history of the zealots, and you know, I was exactly like that.

It was a campaign, everyone was against me. But I knew I was right, because I actually had done a couple of years' work at that point. I had a few backers. And when I was criticized by gastroenterologists, I knew that they were mostly making their living doing endoscopies on ulcer patients. So I'm going to show you guys. A few years from now you'll be saying, "Hey! Where did all those endoscopies go to?" And it will be because I was treating ulcers with antibiotics.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Do you think there was an economic motive that made some people unwilling to consider this?

Barry Marshall Interview Photo
Barry Marshall: That's true. The livelihood of gastroenterologists and many of the drug companies depended on these drugs that were worth billions of dollars, treating millions of people with ulcers. And the thing about ulcers is they come back every second year, that's why they're always thought to be constitutional, or emotional, or caused by stress, because the patient's lifestyle would stay the same and maybe each winter he would get his ulcer back. Gastroenterologists, it seemed to me, only need a few hundred patients. They would do the same endoscopy on the patient each year. He would come back with ulcer symptoms, they'd put the scope down and say, "Yes, you've got an ulcer again. Try this other ulcer medication." There was always a new one to try on the patients in the '80s. And I would say, "Hang on a minute. There's something wrong here. When you see an ulcer, you give the patient Tagamet. And if the patient doesn't have an ulcer, you give the patient Tagamet. Why are we doing this endoscopy when they all get Tagamet?" That was the big drug in those days. I was a little skeptical of that diagnosis of being neurotic or a little stressful. If we didn't find anything there, particularly in women, we would say, "You're under a lot of stress, my dear. You haven't really got anything wrong with yourself. We'll give you an antidepressant." I used to see this happening so often in women whose biopsies were very, very inflamed with these bacteria.

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