One of the challenges for improving the healthcare system is creating a vision for what is achievable in a timeframe of months or years. The first step for creating such a realistic vision is to understand how progress has been made in the past.
A microcosm of such progress was described in a recent article in The Economist. This article describes advances in our understanding of stomach ailments – one of my favorite areas of biomedical progress because in the last several decades dramatic changes have occurred in our basic knowledge about this area, and so many people can relate to stomach problems.
The most significant change occurred in 1982 when two Australian scientists disproved the dogma that because of its very acidic pH the stomach was sterile. They showed that the H. pylori bacteria could live in the stomach and cause the stomach inflammation associated with an upset stomach. Subsequent research showed that H. pylori could be the cause of ulcers and stomach cancer. Following those discoveries, medicines were developed to change the pH of the stomach to treat the stomach inflammation and eliminate the H. pylori.
While lowering the acidity of the stomach with medicines would often improve symptoms, it also raised the question about what bacteria might be able to live in the stomach under less acidic conditions? This question is more intriguing because it has been observed that when people taking medicines to lower their stomach’s acidity stopped taking these medicines, they have a resurgence in their symptoms. This could be because their stomach had become accustomed to the less acidic conditions and then reacts to the renewed acidity; Or it could be because the bacteria that were living in the less acidic stomach are not happy with the greater acidity; Or perhaps the H. pylori that had been struggling in the less acidic stomach multiply very happily with the return of the acidic conditions.
H. pylori – Obesity and Asthma
The Economist article discusses some even more interesting ideas about the role of H. pylori in the stomach. For example, they cite researchers who speculate that the elimination of H. pylori from the stomach may be linked to rising rates of obesity and cancer in the esophagus. These researchers at NYU School of Medicine also found that children who had not been infected with H. pylori were more likely to have asthma. The article summarizes these observations with the speculation from NYU’s Dr. Blaser that perhaps H. pylori should be viewed not as a pathogen, but rather as a symbiotic organism “that is sometimes helpful and sometimes harmful.”
One of Dr. Blaser’s key observation is that H. pylori appears to not just be a passive resident of the stomach, but may actually regulate the stomach’s acid levels to keep the stomach’s pH in a range the bacteria prefer. However, the substance that H. pylori secretes to get the stomach to produce less acid may be toxic to the stomach and result in ulcers and local cancers. Thus, while eliminating the H. pylori would eliminate the toxic source of ulcers and cancers, it can also allow the stomach to produce too much acid – which can lead to cancer of the esophagus, as well as “acid reflux disease,” a.k.a. “heartburn.”
The H. pylori-obesity link is based upon the possibility that the bacteria modify the secretion of certain hormones effecting how people feel hungry, and the H. pylori-asthma link is based upon the effects the bacteria may have on children’s developing immune system. (See The Economist article for more information about these areas.)
These findings lead to the conclusions that perhaps treating stomach ailments and preparing peoples’ stomachs for healthy lives should be based upon their genetic makeup, and seeding children with strains of H. pylori that don’t produce the toxins that can lead to ulcers and stomach cancer, could benefit them without doing harm in the long run.
Overall, this is a great example of how once more knowledge is obtained about a disease and the relevant human physiology, scalpel-like treatment and prevention strategies can be developed and implemented. Of course, educating clinicians, patients, payers and others about these advancements – and why they are important – are also important challenges, because improving health care treatments and our healthcare system involves not just determining what should be done, but also how to actually accomplish those things.