Helicobacter pylori, or H. pylori, is a spiral-shaped bacterium that grows in the mucus layer that coats the inside of the human stomach.
To survive in the harsh, acidic environment of the stomach, H. pylori secretes an enzyme called urease, which converts the chemical urea to ammonia. The production of ammonia around H. pylori neutralizes the acidity of the stomach, making it more hospitable for the bacterium. In addition, the helical shape of H. pylori allows it to burrow into the mucus layer, which is less acidic than the inside space, or lumen, of the stomach. H. pylori can also attach to the cells that line the inner surface of the stomach.
Although immune cells that normally recognize and attack invading bacteria accumulate near sites of H. pylori infection, they are unable to reach the stomach lining. In addition, H. pylori has developed ways of interfering with local immune responses, making them ineffective in eliminating this bacterium (1, 2).
H. pylori has coexisted with humans for many thousands of years, and infection with this bacterium is common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that approximately two-thirds of the world’s population harbors the bacterium, with infection rates much higher in developing countries than in developed nations.
Although H. pylori infection does not cause illness in most infected people, it is a major risk factor for peptic ulcer disease and is responsible for the majority of ulcers of the stomach and upper small intestine. More information about H. pylori and peptic ulcer disease is available from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
In 1994, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified H. pylori as acarcinogen, or cancer-causing agent, in humans, despite conflicting results at the time. Since then, it has been increasingly accepted that colonization of the stomach with H. pylori is an important cause of gastric cancer and of gastric mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT) lymphoma. Infection with H. pylori is also associated with a reduced risk of esophageal adenocarcinoma.
H. pylori is thought to spread through contaminated food and water and through direct mouth-to-mouth contact. In most populations, the bacterium is first acquired during childhood. Infection is more likely in children living in poverty, in crowded conditions, and in areas with poor sanitation.