Could antibiotics help to reduce the risk of stomach cancer?

    28 July 2015

    Gastric cancer is the third most common cause of cancer death worldwide. But according to new analysis published by The Cochrane Library, a short course of antibiotic treatment has the potential to reduce the risk of stomach cancer linked to infection with Helicobacter pylori bacteria.

    H. pylori affects the digestive tract, causing ulcers in the stomach lining and the small intestine. Around two thirds of the population have the infection, and in a minority of cases it can trigger stomach cancer. It is believed to be linked to a third of all British stomach cancer diagnoses.

    Researchers in Canada looked at data from trials carried out in Asia, and found that combining antibiotic treatment with proton-pump inhibitors – drugs that suppress stomach acid production – helps prevent the development of gastric cancer.

    Casey Dunlop, a statistical information officer at Cancer Research UK, is cautiously optimistic about the findings.

    ‘Further research will be needed to determine whether the benefits of treating H. pylori infection outweigh any possible risks.

    This is an interesting analysis of several different studies, which confirms that finding and treating H. pylori infection in otherwise healthy people without symptoms can reduce their chances of subsequently developing stomach cancer. But the benefits appear small, with the analysis suggesting that you would need to treat 124 people infected with H. pylori to prevent one case of stomach cancer.’

    The researchers, led by Dr. Moayyedi at Canada’s McMaster University, found that 1.6 per cent of those given the PPIs and antibiotic therapy for at least a week went on to develop gastric cancer. In those given placebos the figure was 2.4 per cent. The study was unable to establish if this reduction would save lives.

    Although Moayyedi acknowledges that the findings are encouraging, he adds that more work needs to be done.

    ‘More research is needed on the extent of this effect and on any potential harms of H. pylori treatment before it can be advocated as a means of preventing gastric cancer.’