Stomach cancer bug: Its unlocked secrets could reveal new treatments

2011 Annual Report

Stomach cancer bug: Its unlocked secrets could reveal new treatments

Dr. Nina Salama

Dr. Nina Salama

Among the 100 trillion bacteria living in the human body, Helicobacter pylori has managed to infect half the world’s bellies. For tens of thousands of years, H. pylori has for the most part caused us no harm. But in some people, H. pylori becomes a destructive guest, leading to painful ulcers, and sometimes, deadly stomach cancer. H. pylori, like any other living organism, has many tools at its disposal for survival, and it has adapted successfully to its environment. Because it’s capable of causing disease, researchers have been trying to figure out its strengths and weaknesses and the sort of tools that enable it to thrive in the stomach’s caustic surroundings.

This year, Hutchinson Center researcher Dr. Nina Salama and colleagues unlocked one of its main secrets: H. pylori’s corkscrew shape is essential to its survival because it allows it to burrow deeply into the moist lining of the stomach, where it is safe from highly corrosive hydrochloric acid that aids digestion.

H. pylori has four key proteins that turn it into a corkscrew. But if you remove these proteins, the bacterium has trouble colonizing the stomach.

Now, Salama and her team are working to apply their discovery to create a vaccine that selectively targets only these proteins. If the bacteria can’t colonize, they won’t be able to cause disease, eliminating gastric ulcers and gastric cancers.