Page last updated at 23:10 GMT, Thursday, 12 August 2004 00:10 UK

Clues to beating stomach cancer

H. pylori
Over 50% of people are infected with H.pylori which can cause cancer

Scientists believe they may have found a new way to fight a potentially dangerous stomach infection.

Researchers in the United States have discovered that a chemical in the body can protect against H.pylori.

Over 50% of people carry this bacterium, most without any ill effects. However, it can cause stomach ulcers and cancer in others.

Writing in Science, the researchers said their discovery could lead to new treatments to fight the infection.

Stomach infection

H.pylori - short for Helicobacter pylori - is mostly found in the stomach. It usually resides in the outer layer of mucous that lines and protects the stomach. It is rarely found in the deeper layer of this mucous.

This prompted researchers at the Burnham Institute in California to carry out tests to see if there were specific agents in the deeper layers that protected against H.pylori.

This is a fascinating and careful piece of research
Dr Richard Sullivan,
Cancer Research UK

They looked specifically at a chemical called alpha 1,4-N-acetylglucosamine. This is found in the deeper layers of mucous but not in the outer layers.

The scientists found that H.pylori lost its shape, became immobile and eventually died when it came into contact with this chemical.

They said the effect was very similar to antibiotics, which attack and dissolve the bacterium's cell wall.

The researchers also carried out tests on the H.pylori bacterium. They found that a type of fat or type of cholesterol called cholesteryl-alpha-D-glucopyranoside plays a key role in helping it to grow.

They said the discovery could lead to new treatments to fight the infection.

"This naturally-occurring cholesterol offers a very specific target for the design of safer drugs that could treat stomach ulcers and, long-term, prevent stomach cancer linked with H.pylori," said Dr Minoru Fukuda, who led the study.

The findings were welcomed by Cancer Research UK.

"This is a fascinating and careful piece of research which could lead to important new avenues in treating this chronic gastric infection which is a major risk factor for stomach cancer," said Dr Richard Sullivan, its head of clinical programmes.

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