Scientists have used powerful X-rays at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford to reveal a potential way to combat the common stomach bacterium Helicobacter pylori. About half the people in the world carry the bacteria, which can cause ulcers and significantly increase the odds of developing stomach cancer.
In the study, researchers focused in on tiny channels that H. pylori uses to allow in urea from gastric juice in the stomach; it then breaks this compound into ammonia, which neutralizes stomach acid. Blocking the channels would disable this protective system and could lead to a new treatment for those with the infection. More from a recent Stanford Report article:
Using X-rays from SLAC's Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL), "we have deciphered the three-dimensional molecular structure of a very promising drug target," said Hartmut "Hudel" Luecke, a researcher at the University of California-Irvine and principal investigator on the paper. ...
Solving the structure of the protein to find the specific area to target wasn't easy. It is notoriously difficult to crystallize membrane proteins, which is a prerequisite step for using protein crystallography, the primary technique for visualizing protein structures. This technique bounces X-rays off of the electrons in the crystallized protein, which generates the experimental data used to build a 3-D map of the protein's atoms.
"This is the hardest structure I've ever deciphered, and I've been doing this since 1984," Luecke said. "You have to try all kinds of tricks, and these crystals fought us every step of the way. But now that we have the structure, we've reached the exciting part – the prospect of creating specific, safe and effective ways to target this pathogen and wipe it out."
Scientists, including those at Stanford, are still working to determine how the bacteria colonies that exist in our bodies influence our well being. And, as a past story in the New Yorker pointed out, there could be health consequences from eradicating the body of H. pylori or other microbes.