Nobel prizes: The power of original thinking

Awards honor a gutsy move, optical brilliance, and chemical crossovers

TOUGH CUSTOMER. Scientists had thought that no microbe could live in the acidic stomach, but Helicobacter pylori proved them wrong. Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine

Physiology or Medicine

Two Australian scientists who showed that bacteria can cause stomach ulcers have won the 2005 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

The researchers made their discovery 23 years ago, at a time when ulcers were thought to result mainly from excess stomach acid brought on by stress and spicy food. In 1979, J. Robin Warren, a pathologist at the Royal Perth Hospital, noticed a curved bacterium in stomach-tissue samples from a patient. A few years later, a gastroenterologist at the hospital, Barry J. Marshall, cultured the microbe—ultimately named Helicobacter pylori. The two scientists then found H. pylori in nearly all patients with ulcers and also in most patients with gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach lining.

Despite the duo’s string of confirming reports in the 1980s, the scientific community demurred for a decade before adopting the notion that a pathogen could cause stomach ulcers. Today, gastroenterologists estimate that H. pylori causes 80 to 90 percent of ulcers. Antibiotics plus acid-blocking drugs routinely cure the disease.

“The award is well deserved,” says Martin J. Blaser, an infectious-disease physician at New York University School of Medicine. Over the past decade, treatment has made H. pylori “an endangered species in the stomach,” he says.

However, Blaser recalls a 1983 scientific meeting in Brussels at which Marshall presented his early findings. “Marshall said they had discovered a new bacterium,” says Blaser. “That data looked good.” But when Marshall claimed that the microbe was the cause of stomach ulcers, “people were skeptical, because quack theories arise all the time,” Blaser adds.

The following year, a frustrated Marshall took an extreme step: He swilled a vial of live H. pylori. Within a week, he developed raging gastritis. Treatment with an antibiotic and bismuth, which had shown some efficacy against ulcers, eradicated the microbe. But Marshall’s stunt still didn’t appease all his critics.

Finally, large-scale trials in the early 1990s established that antibiotics coupled with acid-blocking drugs or bismuth indeed knock out the microbe and cure ulcers.

Warren has since retired, and Marshall is now at the University of Western Australia in Nedlands. They will share the $1.3 million award.

The discovery of H. pylori “represents a paradigm shift” in the study of human diseases, says gastroenterologist Richard M. Peek Jr. of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville. With their work, Peek says, Warren and Marshall showed that H. pylori infections can lead to dangerous inflammation. Other researchers have since linked inflammation of various origins to malignancies.

For example, they’ve tied chronic inflammation in the intestines to colon cancer and linked inflammatory infections by hepatitis B and C viruses to liver cancer. In some cases, H. pylori infection itself can predispose a person to stomach cancer, Peek notes.

H. pylori infects half the world’s population, but only a fraction of those people get ulcers. Scientists are now examining genetic variations in people that might explain why only some are vulnerable to the microbe (SN: 11/30/02, p. 341: Available to subscribers at Predisposed to Trouble: Gene variants implicated in stomach cancer; 3/8/03, p. 148: Available to subscribers at Ulcer Clue? Molecule could be key to stomach ailment).—N. Seppa


Three physicists who advanced the understanding and measurement of light have won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physics.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded half of the prize to Roy J. Glauber of Harvard University for theoretical advances dating back to 1963. The rest of the prize is shared equally by John L. Hall and Theodor W. Hänsch, who were recognized for optical-frequency-measuring techniques.

Hall does research at JILA, an institute based in Boulder, Colo., and run jointly by the University of Colorado and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Hänsch directs the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, and is a professor at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich.

In the decades before Glauber did his Nobel prize–winning work, scientists had formulated the theory of quantum mechanics and had recognized that electromagnetic radiation behaves both as waves and particles do. Nevertheless, physicists were still relying on 19th-century wave-based theories to explain most behaviors of light.

Some measurements in the mid-1950s yielded results that made it difficult for scientists to cling to the old ways. For instance, physicists had assumed that light particles, or photons, “arrive [at a detector] randomly like raindrops with no correlation between them,” Glauber said at a news conference at Harvard on Oct. 4, the day the prize was announced. However, landmark astronomical observations showed that photons often arrive in a coordinated manner.

Glauber recalled that such anomalies and the 1960 invention of the laser inspired him to develop a quantum theory of light “to the fullest extent mathematically possible.” The result was a theoretical framework for what’s known today as quantum optics—a burgeoning field with technological offshoots ranging from advanced lasers to new methods of computation and communication.

“If you are working in a photon lab, you use [Glauber’s theoretical advances] every day,” says Markus Arndt of the Institute for Experimental Physics at the University of Vienna in Austria.

Five years ago, a particularly promising spin-off of quantum-optics research emerged primarily from the labs of Hall and Hänsch (SN: 6/3/00, p. 359: Spectrum deftly takes visible light’s pulse). Decades of work by the two scientists led to what’s known as optical-frequency-comb technology. Hall had created lasers that maintain a single color with outstanding stability, and Hänsch had invented techniques that overcome the ill effects of atomic motions on precise frequency measurements.

Frequency-comb technology, which is already commercially available, uses trains of brief laser pulses to generate light made up of hundreds of thousands of discrete frequencies spaced equally, as the teeth of a comb are. Users can determine with extraordinary precision the frequencies in signals, such as light from a cloud of excited atoms, by comparing the unknown frequencies with the precisely known positions of comb frequencies along the electromagnetic spectrum.

Such measurements play a pivotal role in research across the sciences as well as in an array of technologies, including sensors, telecommunications links, and atomic clocks.—P. Weiss


This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to three chemists for their work in developing an organic chemistry reaction that has become an industry staple.

Called metathesis, which means a change of place, the reaction switches, from one molecule to another, chemical groups that are attached to carbon atoms. Metathesis has simplified reaction sequences for the synthesis of drugs and other chemicals and has reduced waste generated during those processes.

In 1971, Yves Chauvin of the French Petroleum Institute in Rueil-Malmaison, France, explained how metathesis takes place and what kinds of metals can catalyze the reaction. In 1990, Richard R. Schrock of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology made the first efficient metal catalyst for the reaction, and 2 years later, Robert H. Grubbs of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena produced an improved catalyst that is stable in air. The three researchers will divide the prize money equally. Further details of their work will appear in next week’s Science News.—A. Cunningham

Aimee Cunningham

Aimee Cunningham is the biomedical writer. She has a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University.

More Stories from Science News on Humans

From the Nature Index

Paid Content