The Causes of Cancer: Infection – The case of Helicobacter Pylori

One of the most recently discovered causes of cancer is infection. The first part of this post focuses on how HPV, a sexually-transmitted virus, leads to uncontrolled cell proliferation and ultimately cancer of the cervix, of the throat and of the rectum.  This post is focusing on a different mechanism through which infection can lead to cancer – that is, through inflammation.

subglacial_lakes_1The most flagrant example of inflammation leading to cancer is Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium that can infect the stomach and most often causes stomach ulcers. Helicobacter both lowers the pH of the stomach, making it an even more acidic environment than it already is. The bacteria also produces special proteins that literally corrode the lining of the stomach, which eventually leads to the formation of painful stomach ulcers. Treating ulcers is relatively straightforward: antibiotics kill the Helicobacter, which in turn helps the ulcers to heal.

However, these problems are often harder to treat than it seems. In fact, Helicobacter-based ulcers often becoming chronic, which means the cells lining the stomach are constantly exposed to inflammation for months and years at end. Inflammation is one of the most powerful driving causes of cancer formation. It is therefore no surprise that gastric cancer is associated with Helicobacter infection (see below).

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This makes understanding, preventing and treating stomach ulcers increasingly important. The real take-home message from the connection between certain types inflammation and cancer is that all aspects of human health are connected through more or less convoluted means. Decreasing the number of people who get these relatively innocuous infections and treating them quickly and effectively end up being a long-term investment reducing the number of people who will be diagnosed with cancer. Helping the public to look after their own health in small and relatively inexpensive ways (like sponsoring HPV vaccines or better nutrition programs) can truly save lives.

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