Friday, January 7, 2011

Self experiment

Max Joseph von Pettenkofer's experiment with drinking cholera was part of a long tradition of self-experiment in medicine. Of course von Pettenkofer did not believe he would infect himself (and was fortunate in not doing so) but for the really serious self-experiment you deliberately infect yourself (and ideally then cure yourself). Hardcore.

This is exactly what an Australian, Barry Marshall, did in 1984. He consumed a petri dish of Helicobacter pylori bacteria to help prove his theory that stomach ulcers were not caused by stress (the conventional wisdom) but were actually an infectious disease caused by H.pylori. One of the reasons that his theory was widely rejected was that no-one thought bacteria could grow in the extremely acid stomach with a typical pH of around 1. We now know that there are several groups of specialized acidophilic, or acid-loving bacteria, some of which can grow in pH's less than 0.5. Not many bacteria can survive in the human stomach but a few, including H.Pylori, can not only survive but can grow.

In contrast to von Pettenkofer Dr Marshall was correct in his theory and, as a consequence developed a stomach ulcer which, fortunately, he was able to cure with antibiotics. Which we'll talk about next week. In 2005 Dr. Marshall and his collaborator Dr. Warren were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine "for their discovery of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease".

There's a nice interview with him here.

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