A virus has been identified as a possible new weapon to fight acne.

Scientists at UCLA and the University of Pittsburgh suggest that a virus living on our skin naturally seeks and destroys the bacteria responsible for zits.

Dr. Robert Modlin, a researcher in this study and chief of dermatology and professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, explained:

“Acne affects millions of people, yet we have few treatments that are both safe and effective. Harnessing a virus that naturally preys on the bacteria that causes pimples could offer a promising new tool against the physical and emotional scars of severe acne.”

Two microbes were analyzed in their investigation, which was published in American Society for Microbiology,:

  • Propionibacterium acnes- a bacterium growing in our pores that can activate acne
  • Propionibacterium acnes phages- a harmless family of viruses living on human skin that infect and kill the P. acnes bacterium

When the immune system becomes irritated by P. acnes bacteria, the swollen, red bumps, known as acne, form. Most current treatments decrease the number of P. acnes bacteria on the skin.

“We know that sex hormones, facial oil and the immune system play a role in causing acne, however, a lot of research implicates P. acnes as an important trigger,” said Laura Marinelli, a UCLA postdoctoral researcher in Modlin’s laboratory. “Sometimes they set off an inflammatory response that contributes to the development of acne.”

The team took samples of acne bacteria and P. acnes viruses from the noses of their subjects, who had either pimply or clear skin, by using pore cleansing strips that can be found over-the-counter at drugstores.

After the bacteriophages’ genomes were patterned, researchers learned that the viruses have many characteristics, i.e. limited diversity, small size, and the skill to destroy their hosts. These attributes make them the perfect option to help create a new treatment that fights acne.

“Our findings provide valuable insights into acne and the bacterium that causes it,” revealed author Graham Hatfull, Eberly Family Professor of Biotechnology, professor of biological sciences at the University of Pittsburgh and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute researcher. “The lack of genetic diversity among the phages that attack the acne bacterium implies that viral-based strategies may help control this distressing skin disorder.”

Since phages are designed to find and destroy certain bacertia, P. acnes phages will only target P. acnes bacteria, and not others like E. coli. This ability shows that the viruses can be highly effective in treating pimples.

The experts hope that this research will bring them closer to understanding acne, which affects nearly 90% of people in the United States at least one point in their lives. In the past, there has been very little progress made in developing new strategies for treatment and recent studies have urged researchers to do more investigations in this area.

For years, dermatologists have recommended benzoyl peroxide, antibiotics and Accutane to help fight against zits, but there has been no progress in making these treatments better or developing any new ones.

Dr. Jenny Kim, co-author and director of the UCLA Clinic for Acne, Rosacea and Aesthetics, explained:

“Antibiotics such as tetracycline are so widely used that many acne strains have developed resistance, and drugs like Accutane, while effective, can produce risky side effects, limiting their use. Acne can dramatically disfigure people and undermine their self-esteem, especially in teens. We can change patients’ lives with treatment. It’s time we identified a new way to safely treat the common disorder.”

Further investigations will be conducted in which they will isolate the active protein from the P. acnes virus to determine whether it is as successful as the whole virus in destroying acne bacteria. If their tests in the laboratory prove to be effective, the team will then study the safety of fighting the war on acne in humans.

Written by Sarah Glynn