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Researchers report they have figured out how the cancer-causing bacterium Helicobacter pylori attacks a cell’s energy infrastructure, sparking a series of events in the cell that ultimately lead it to self-destruct.

H. pylori are the only bacteria known to survive in the human stomach. Infection with H. pylori is associated with an increased risk of gastric cancer, the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide.

"More than half the world’s population is currently infected with H. pylori,” said University of Illinois microbiology professor Steven Blanke, who led the study. “And we’ve known for a long time that the host doesn’t respond appropriately to clear the infection from the stomach, allowing the bacterium to persist as a risk factor for cancer.”

The new study, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to show how a bacterial toxin can disrupt a cell’s mitochondria – its energy-generation and distribution system – to disable the cell and spur apoptosis (programmed cell death).

Primary source: PNAS

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