The “best news I’ve had in I don’t know how long,” Sir Gustav
Nossal told Crikey today in reaction to the news that West Australian researchers Barry Marshall
and Robin Warren have won this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine.

The Nobel Prize committee tends to get it right, says Professor Peter Doherty, the last Australian to win a Nobel, back in 1996. That’s why the prize is “so prestigious.” And they’ve “definitely got it
right” in the case of Marshall and Warren. “We’ve been picking them as
candidates for years now.”

Doherty, who’s written The Beginner’s Guide to Winning a
Nobel Prize

(for what one must imagine is a fairly limited audience) says his best
piece of advice to potential candidates is “look after your health,
because you may have to live a while.”

Pretty sage counsel in the case of Marshall and Warren. They’re
being rewarded for their discovery 23 years ago of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, which allowed
stomach ulcers to be treated with antibiotics, says The Oz. Two decades ago, Marshall and Warren defied
popular opinion that stomach ulcers and gastritis were caused by
stress, poor diet and excess gastric acids, proving instead that they were brought about by bacterium –
and therefore able to be treated medicinally.

So certain were they of their theory that Marshall offered himself up
as guinea pig, swallowing a solution of the bug. It brought on the
desired effect, vomiting and the painful symptoms of gastritis, but
Marshall’s wife, Adrienne, was nonplussed, reports The Times. “That’s a very Barry thing to have done,” she said.

It was also an “extraordinary act that demonstrated outstanding
dedication and commitment to his research,” says Lord May of Oxford,
president of Britain’s Royal Society.

By producing antibiotics to counteract the bacterium, Marshall and
Warren transformed peptic ulcer disease from a “chronic, frequently
disabling condition” into one that “can be cured by a short regimen of antibiotics and
acid secretion inhibitors,” said the Nobel Assembly of Stockholm’s
Karolinska Institute.

It was an “important discovery with
practical overtones,” agrees Nossal. And the award is a “great thing for Australia
and Australian medical research.” It gives the young people role
models to look to, he says. “Very well deserved indeed.”

It’s not every day that an Australian wins a Nobel Prize. In fact, it’s not even close to every year, as this round-up of Australian recipients – now rounded out to double digits with the addition of Marshall and Warren –
shows.

Peter Fray

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