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Thursday, April 22, 1999 Published at 13:22 GMT 14:22 UK


Burps to beat ulcers

Fizzy drinks are used to make burps "on demand"

A £250,000 study of what is in a burp is about to start. But the scientists' aim is a serious one - detecting the bacteria which cause stomach ulcers.

David Cowell explains why he needs to make people belch
The researchers are developing a new sensor which will analyse the stomach gas released in a belch cheaply and instantaneously. If successful, it would allow diagnosis in a local doctor's surgery and early treatment with antibiotics.

This would save patients discomfort and the health service money.

Dr David Cowell, from the University of the West of England, is leading the team and explained to BBC News Online the key aims of the 18-month pilot study.

"We are looking at the stability of the sensor device, so that it can be stored on a shelf without any problems, designing the instrumentation that will hold the sensor itself and looking at how to get people to belch on demand," he says.

[ image: Helicobacter pylori causes most stomach ulcers]
Helicobacter pylori causes most stomach ulcers
At the moment, the scientists get their volunteers to burp by giving them cold, fizzy drinks. "Drinking a can of cold coke invariably makes everybody belch," says Dr Cowell.

The key to the test is a single sensor. This detects a volatile chemical that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori produces to protect it from the stomach's acidic environment. Whether the fizzy drink will interfere with this is being studied.

Current methods of testing for H pylori can be slow, expensive or uncomfortable. Biopsies are painful and blood samples have to be sent to a laboratory. So do the "drink-and-breathe" tests which cost £30 each. Dr Cowell hopes the new belch test will cost between £3 and £5.

Bad bug

H pylori is estimated to cause 95% of duodenal ulcers and the majority of gastric ulcers. Around 30% of the population in the Western world and some 80% in developing countries carry the bug but in most people it produces no symptoms whatsoever.

The initial project will run for 18 months and is funded by the UK Deparment of Health and the medical diagnostic company, Hypoguard. Clinical trials are expected to follow.

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