Professor Barry Marshall still remembers the day His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej handed him the Prince Mahidol Award. It was the first time he’d met a royal family.
Professor Marshall, whose discovery of the bacteria Helicobacter Pylori causing gastric ulcers in human stomach brought him the Prince Mahidol Award in Public Health for 2001 and the Nobel Prize in Medicine for 2005, granted a rare interview to the Thai media on 14 November 2006. Appearing exhausted from attending the 6th Western-Pacific Helicobacter Congress held at Plaza Athenee Hotel in Bangkok, Professor Marshall greeted everyone with good spirit. The reason for his attendance, he said, was to encourage Thai scientists to become experts on H. Pylori, the bacteria he discovered that caused suffering among millions of people around the world and high treatment expenditure. Despite the fact that most patients with ulcers can now receive a reasonable and effective treatment using antibiotics, about ten per cent of them do not respond to the treatment.
Professor Marshall’s ongoing research project attempts to identify factors that give certain ethnic groups immunity from developing gastric ulcer or stomach cancer. Thai people, he observed, are susceptible to gastric ulcer, but less so to gastric cancer. His answer, yet to be tested, lies in the ingredients of the Thai cuisine. Another project he is undertaking is to develop a vaccine using H. Pylori as the delivery system. In general, vaccination requires an injection of vaccine products into the bloodstream for the vaccination to take effect. However, H. Pylori’s ability to manipulate the immune system from inside the human stomach shows that injecting vaccines is not always required. A study of H. Pylori, therefore, may lead to a discovery of oral vaccine products.
On a lighter note, Professor Marshall shared with the audience his experience of his travel to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize from H.M. King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden. He first mentioned that his encounter with the royal family of Thailand was truly special and memorable and the hospitality of H.M. the King and H.R.H. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn made him feel at ease, and that helped him a great deal to become less nervous when he met the Swedish royal family during his Nobel Prize ceremony. He also praised the royal families, Thailand’s included, for uniting their nations through good and bad times.
Professor Marshall also advised young scientists with a desire to make a difference in the medical world to keep their roots. No matter how busy their career has become, they need to spare time for their families at least once every other week. “Because family,” he stressed, “is the one sacrificing on your behalf.” That is what Professor Marshall has tried to do throughout his entire career, especially since he became famous.
Coincidentally, his interview was taking place only a few days after the winners of the Prince Mahidol Award for 2006 was announced. When asked to give advice to the new Prince Mahidol Award laureates, Professor Marshall said, with a big smile, “pack extra suitcases because you will get a ton of beautiful gifts from the Thai people.”