As a teenager, Nina Salama first heard the story of the stomach bug Helicobacter pylori from her father, a pathologist.
"My dad told me about these crazy guys from Australia who proved ulcers weren't caused by stress, but by this bacteria," said the Hutchinson Center microbiologist. "He was really captivated because it was very revolutionary and defiantly contrary to popular thinking at the time."
Salama was already knee-deep in her own H. pylori research when the Aussies' work was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 2005. In the years since their discovery, the bacteria was linked to gastric cancer, the second-leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide. Salama found studying H. pylori irresistible.
"I love learning how these bugs work, how our bodies work, having those little 'Aha!' moments," she said. "By studying how bacteria, viruses and parasites manipulate the host for their own gain, I also learn about the basic biology of how we function. It's this give and take where either side might win."
To increase the odds that the human side of the microbial battle might win, Salama and her lab colleagues are picking apart H. pylori's genes to better understand how it functions and how it stimulates the human immune system to cause chronic inflammation, the basis of ulcers and gastric cancer. She wants to better understand the decades-long molecular cross-talk between host and bacteria that causes some people infected with H. pylori to have stomach pains while others wind up with cancer. Her work may lead to better drug treatments for those illnesses and big-picture insights into the disease process itself.
To accomplish this goal, Salama and her colleagues have created a number of research tools that allow scientists to identify genes that are likely to be good targets for wiping out the infection.
Salama's team is investigating the strategies that H. Pylori uses to get into and stay in the stomach; they made a breakthrough finding that H. pylori is shaped like a corkscrew due to four key proteins. This shape allows it to bore itself into into the stomach, where it thrives. It turns out that other powerful and dangerous bacteria — such as the one that causes cholera — share similar boring shapes. Knowing what makes these infections stick around may lead to new therapies, including better antibiotics.
The researchers are also particularly interested in learning more about the genes that make H. Pylori resistant to attack by the immune system.
Salama said collaboration and a risk-taking culture have propelled her work at the Center. "Isolation really stifles creativity," she said. "But working together to blend creative approaches is encouraged here. I love that we're constantly getting reseeded with new ideas."
Taking chances and exploring unexpected research paths are the essence of good science, Salama said. "You have an idea to bring things together one way, but you don't know where things are going to go. Just starting the process is critical — if you never start, you'll never learn."