Photo: Getty Images
Inside the human stomach could well be one of the most hostile places on Earth.
Stomach acid is mainly comprised of super-strong hydrochloric acid that aids in digestion and does a miraculous job of killing microorganisms, such as parasites and bacteria.
So it has been puzzling how any bacteria could not only survive, but in some cases thrive long enough in such a hostile environment to cause health problems from stomach ulcers to stomach cancer, lymphoma, type 1 diabetes, autoimmune thyroiditis and other chronic illnesses.
That’s the question scientists have been asking for a long time, and now they may be closer to having an answer. The discovery could also give clues in preventing and better treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
It starts with Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), the only bacteria known to survive in the highly acidic human stomach.
Having an H. pylori infection is associated with peptic ulcers and an increased risk of gastric cancer, one of the most common and deadly cancers worldwide. In the United States, half of the estimated 21,000 new gastric cancer diagnoses in 2010 will succumb to the disease. The global statistics are even more startling.
Each year, nearly one million people are diagnosed with gastric cancer, and nearly three-quarters of those will die from the disease, the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide according to American Cancer Society’s 2008 estimates for global cancer statistics.(GLOBOCAN)
The thing is, H. pylori bacterium is extremely common. Best estimates suggest half the world’s population, (7 billion of us) is currently infected with H. pylori, but most people don’t even know they have it. That’s because H. pylori can be symptom-free for a long time. What’s more, the bacteria can sometimes be difficult to diagnose, according to the American College of Gastroenterology.
Researchers believe most of us are exposed to the bacteria as children. H. pylori is passed from person to person through direct contact with saliva, vomit or fecal matter, or spread through contaminated food or water.