The gram-negative bacterium Helicobacter pylori is able to tolerate the acidic environment of the human stomach and has been shown to be a major cause of peptic ulcers, which are ulcers of the stomach or duodenum. The bacterium is also associated with increased risk of stomach cancer. According to the CDC, approximately two-thirds of the population is infected with H. pylori, but less than 20% have a risk of developing ulcers or stomach cancer. H. pylori is found in approximately 80% of stomach ulcers and in over 90% of duodenal ulcers.
H. pylori colonizes epithelial cells in the stomach using pili for adhesion. These bacteria produce urease, which stimulates an immune response and creates ammonia that neutralizes stomach acids to provide a more hospitable microenvironment. The infection damages the cells of the stomach lining, including those that normally produce the protective mucus that serves as a barrier between the tissue and stomach acid. As a result, inflammation (gastritis) occurs and ulcers may slowly develop. Ulcer formation can also be caused by toxin activity. It has been reported that 50% of clinical isolates of H. pylori have detectable levels of exotoxin activity in vitro. This toxin, VacA, induces vacuole formation in host cells. VacA has no primary sequence homology with other bacterial toxins, and in a mouse model, there is a correlation between the presence of the toxin gene, the activity of the toxin, and gastric epithelial tissue damage.
Signs and symptoms include nausea, lack of appetite, bloating, burping, and weight loss. Bleeding ulcers may produce dark stools. If no treatment is provided, the ulcers can become deeper, more tissues can be involved, and stomach perforation can occur. Because perforation allows digestive enzymes and acid to leak into the body, it is a very serious condition.
To diagnose H. pylori infection, multiple methods are available. In a breath test, the patient swallows radiolabeled urea. If H. pylori is present, the bacteria will produce urease to break down the urea. This reaction produces radiolabeled carbon dioxide that can be detected in the patient’s breath. Blood testing can also be used to detect antibodies to H. pylori. The bacteria themselves can be detected using either a stool test or a stomach wall biopsy.
Antibiotics can be used to treat the infection. However, unique to H. pylori, the recommendation from the US Food and Drug Administration is to use a triple therapy. The current protocols are 10 days of treatment with omeprazole, amoxicillin, and clarithromycin (OAC); 14 days of treatment with bismuth subsalicylate, metronidazole, and tetracycline (BMT); or 10 or 14 days of treatment with lansoprazole, amoxicillin, and clarithromycin (LAC). Omeprazole, bismuth subsalicylate, and lansoprazole are not antibiotics but are instead used to decrease acid levels because H. pylori prefers acidic environments.
Although treatment is often valuable, there are also risks to H. pylori eradication. Infection with H. pylori may actually protect against some cancers, such as esophageal adenocarcinoma and gastroesophageal reflux disease.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology