Scientists at the University of Nottingham have been awarded over £366,000 to help unravel the mystery of a stomach bug which causes gastric ulcers and cancer.
Their research could lead to the development of a vaccine for those most at risk.
The bacterium, Helicobacter pylori (Hp), lives in the stomachs of approximately half the world’s population. Dr Karen Robinson, a lecturer at the Centre of Biomolecular Sciences and co-researcher John Atherton, Professor of Gastroenterology and Head of the Wolfson Digestive Diseases Centre, lead a team of scientists that have spent the last three years trying to discover why most people are immune to the bug while it can cause potentially fatal disease in some people.
Dr Robinson says this new funding, from the Medical Research Council, will allow them to address one of the most important questions in Helicobacter research — why some infected individuals develop ulcers or gastric cancer whilst others remain asymptomatic. “My interest is in the immune response and how this dictates whether or not an infected person goes on to develop disease.”
In recent studies the team has shown that the bacteria induce changes to the immune system which calm the inflammation down. However, sometimes this relationship goes wrong. Their experiments showed that people with ulcers often have a suppressed protective response, leading to the development of severe inflammation and ulceration of the stomach lining.
If we become infected with Hp it generally happens in childhood. The bacteria can remain undetected in the stomach for life. However, in some people it causes inflammation which leads to gastric ulcers or cancer in later years. Scientists at The University of Nottingham believe the Hp manipulates the immune system and patients aren’t aware of a problem until the disease has become so advanced they need surgery or chemotherapy.
The occurrence of the disease is currently thought to be due to several factors including the toxic nature of the infecting strain, the genetic susceptibility of the host, and environmental factors.
The project, due to start in September, aims to advance scientific understanding of the relationship between bacterial factors and cellular immunity, and how this contributes to Hp-induced disease. Scientists want to discover the factors which allow Hp infections to persist and down-regulate inflammation. Dr Robinson hopes this research will identify those at risk and lead to the development of effective vaccine strategies. “Most people do not suffer any symptoms or problems from their infection but some go on to develop stomach ulcers or gastric cancer. Both of these conditions are major causes of morbidity and mortality worldwide and incur enormous health care costs both in the UK and world-wide.”