Beating stomach bacteria

Dr Maria Liaskos is an expert on Helicobacter pylori, a bacteria that infects the stomach of humans

By Dr Giselle Roberts

Dr Maria Liaskos is an expert on Helicobacter pylori, a bacteria that infects the stomach of humans. About half of the world’s population is currently infected with Helicobacter pylori, but many don’t know it. Infection typically occurs before the age of five and symptoms, such as heart burn and stomach pain, don’t emerge until a patient is in their thirties, if at all.

Helicobacter pylori causes stomach inflammation and more serious conditions including stomach ulcers and stomach cancer.

The World Health Organisation have identified H. pylori as a Class I carcinogen. “Seventy percent of all gastric cancers worldwide are attributed to Helicobacter infection,” explains Liaskos. “I am working to understand how Helicobacter pylori manages to hijack and suppress the human immune system. Essentially, it makes molecules that put a handbrake on the body’s immune response, preventing it from clearing the infection.”

Releasing that handbrake is critical for clearance of H. pylori infections, especially in more serious cases of disease.

“Clearing the Helicobacter infection in an individual with stage one gastric cancer will resolve the cancer in 75% cases,” said Liaskos. “At stage two, it’s 50% of cases. The bacterial infection is, therefore, closely connected to cancer development.”

Dr Liaskos is now working on Helicobacter membrane vesicles (MV), or bacterial nanoparticles, to further understand their role in the progression of disease. “I call them bacterial hand grenades,” she said. “Bacterial MVs can travel great distances in the body and, wherever they end up, they can cause damage and drive inflammation. Understanding these nanoparticles is critical to developing new targets that stop bacteria like Helicobacter pylori in its tracks.”

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