Andean Mummies Reveal H pylori Is an Ancient Enemy

July 1, 1998
Oncology NEWS International, Oncology NEWS International Vol 7 No 7, Volume 7, Issue 7

NEW ORLEANS--Analysis of stools of centuries-old mummies shows that some were infected with Helicobacter pylori, indicating that this bacterium, which colonizes the stomach and can cause ulcers and stomach cancer, has long plagued humans.

NEW ORLEANS--Analysis of stools of centuries-old mummies shows that some were infected with Helicobacter pylori, indicating that this bacterium, which colonizes the stomach and can cause ulcers and stomach cancer, has long plagued humans.

"All animals that have stomachs have a similar bacterium in the stomach," Pelayo Correa, MD, Boyd Professor of Pathology, Louisiana State University Medical Center, said at a press conference. So scientists suspected that humans had likely long been hosts to H pylori. But this study provides the first proof.

For this research, presented at the annual meeting of the American Gastro-enterological Association, Dr. Correa collaborated with Marvin J. Allison, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Medical College of Virginia, Richmond. Since 1969, Dr. Allison has been studying mummies found in the Andes of South America to discover how they died. His goal, Dr. Allison said at the press briefing, is to "form a history of disease in the Americas." So far, he and his colleagues have been able to identify the cause of death in about 40% of the mummies examined, and in 95% of those with all the organs.

In this study, Drs. Correa and Allison and others teamed up to investigate whether ancient people may have suffered from ulcers. The stomach linings of the mummies had disintegrated long ago, so the researchers turned to the Premier Platinum HpSA test, which detects antigens of H pylori in stool specimens).

A New Diagnostic Test for H pylori

NEW ORLEANS--The FDA has cleared for marketing a noninvasive test for the bacterium responsible for most ulcers and some stomach cancers, Meridian Diagnostics, Inc., of Cincinnati announced during the Digestive Disease Week meetings.

The new test, Premier Platinum HpSA, detects antigens of Helicobacter pylori in stool specimens. According to Meridian, sensitivity is 96% and specificity is 96%. It takes about 90 minutes to perform, and the patient does not need to eat a special diet or abstain from medications beforehand. Cost is expected to average $50 to $100.

Half the people in the world--and one-third of Americans--are thought to be infected with H pylori, said Charles Caso, director of marketing for Meridian. Although some people suffer no ill effects from H pylori, others develop ulcers or stomach cancer.

About half of Americans who present with ulcer symptoms for the first time are prescribed symptom alleviating drugs alone, he said, perhaps because methods to detect H pylori have been costly, time-consuming, and/or invasive.

By making diagnosis easier and cheaper, the Premier Platinum HpSA test may encourage physicians to test symptomatic patients and then treat those found to be infected with H pylori, Mr. Caso said. Reinfection with H pylori is uncommon, and most cured patients never have another ulcer.

Drawbacks of Other Tests

Currently, the most accurate tests are endoscopy and the urea breath test. Endoscopy costs about $1,200. The urea breath test, which costs $60 to $300, requires patients to do without their ulcer drugs for 4 weeks and to eat a special diet beforehand. Cheaper and less cumbersome is a third test that evaluates whole blood or serum for antibody to H pylori. This test costs $40 or less, but it can neither monitor treatment efficacy nor distinguish an active infection from a past infection.

According to Meridian, the HpSA test has several advantages: It’s noninvasive, far cheaper than endoscopy, convenient, and detects only active infections. However, one disadvantage is that it tests only for H pylori and not for other causes of ulcer-like symptoms. If the test is negative, the patient must then go through more tests, possibly including endoscopy.

Meridian is currently conducting more clinical trials to determine the test’s suitability for use in children. And it plans to apply for approval of the test in patients who have finished treatment for H pylori to confirm that the bacterium is indeed gone.

Stool samples from 30 mummies were tested. Results indicated that six were positive for H pylori. One was a young man who is thought to have died of pneumonia 1,700 years ago and whose body was found in Arica, Chile. Another, whose results were less conclusive, was a man who died 1,800 years ago and who was found in the Tarapaca Valley in Chile.

This study confirms that H pylori has infected humans for many centuries and may have caused ulcers and stomach cancer in prehistoric peoples. The successful use of a test specific for modern H pylori to detect the bacterium’s ancient ancestors suggests that its antigens have not changed much in the past 1,700 years.