Helicobacter: A Cure Without Antibiotics?

University medicine in Linz could make life easier for millions of patients.

Univ.-Prof. Alexander Moschen
Professor Alexander Moschen

Abdominal pain, gastritis, peptic ulcers: Professor Alexander Moschen at the Johannes Kepler University Linz is exploring ways to gently combat these conditions and even prevent cancer. Prof. Moschen, head of the Department of Internal Medicine at the Kepler University Hospital, remarked: "Different strains of bacteria simply don't like each other. Patients who have been diagnosed with Helicobacter pylori received a certain type of lactobacilli for ten days to see whether or not this results in the Helicobacter disappearing."

Helicobacter pylori is an unusual strain of bacteria. The human intestine is populated by countless bacteria but the stomach has long been considered a restricted area on account of the hydrochloric acid secreted in the stomach. The environment is so acidic (with a pH value of 1) that doctors assumed bacteria could not live there. At the end of the 1980s, two Australians identified Helicobacter in the stomach. Using a special enzyme, Helicobacter can convert the acid. Prof. Moschen added: "The likelihood of having Helicobacter is as high as one’s age. That means that if someone is 40 years old, they have a 40% chance of having it."

The microbe often runs in families and is passed on from parent to child via saliva, for example, when tasting the baby's food. Although many bacteria in the body do not harm - or benefit - humans, Helicobacter is different. Experts now know it is responsible for many ailments ranging from abdominal pain, discomfort and bloating to gastritis, stomach and duodenal ulcers. The specialist emphasized how important it is to treat the microbe: "Helicobacter are not only life-threatening, they have proven to be carcinogenic - unlike viruses, in which this is more common."

Different Effects
Research as to why Helicobacter severely affects some people but does not seem to affect others has never been conclusively studied. The university professor remarked: "Different factors, such as stress, smoking, alcohol, and using certain medications play a role." Until now, the most common method has been to treat symptomatic patients with specific antibiotics, along with acid blockers. Moschen added: "You always have to then consider whether or not the benefits outweigh the potentially negative side effects." He also says there is also an issue of the body building a resistance to antibiotics. In the end, overprescribing a former “miracle weapon” to fight bacterial illnesses is resulting in more and more strains of bacteria becoming immune to antibiotics. This poses a threat because sooner rather than later, some people may not respond to certain treatments and it may not be available to those suffering life-threatening diseases.