The thin layer of microorganisms covering our skin may play an important role in wound healing, according to a new UK study discussed at a scientific meeting in the US. The researchers hope the findings will help improve how we treat chronic wounds, a common ailment among the elderly.

Dr. Matthew Hardman, a senior research fellow at the University of Manchester Healing Foundation Centre, presented the study at the Experimental Biology 2014 meeting in San Diego, CA, on April 28th.

Having just got used to the fact that our gut is home to trillions of bacteria, we now learn that we spend our whole lives clothed in a thin veneer of microorganisms.

However, compared with what we know about gut bacteria, we are only just beginning to find out about those that colonize our skin, says Dr. Hardman, who explains the value of the new findings:

“This study gives us a much better understanding of the types of bacterial species that are found in skin wounds, how our cells might respond to the bacteria and how that interaction can affect healing.”

“It’s our hope that these insights could help lead to better treatments to promote wound healing that are based on sound biology,” he adds.

Around 1 in 20 elderly people live with wounds that never seem to heal. These chronic wounds are a significant health problem and often result from diabetes or poor blood circulation, such as that which develops when a person is confined to a wheelchair or bed.

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The findings suggest there may be a particular bacterial pattern or “signature” for wounds that do not heal.

Such wounds can persist unhealed for years, says Dr. Hardman, and there are no good treatments to help them heal. Plus, there are no reliable ways to tell if they ever will.

“There’s a definite need for better ways to both predict how a wound is going to heal and develop new treatments to promote healing,” he adds.

For their study, he and his colleagues compared skin bacteria from people with chronic wounds with those of people whose wounds did heal.

They found marked differences in the bacterial colonies of the two groups, suggesting there may be a particular bacterial pattern or “signature” for wounds that do not heal.

Dr. Hardman says their findings support the idea that you could profile the bacteria from a wound swab to see if the wound is likely to heal quickly or persist, and then use that to make treatment decisions.

The team carried out tests on mice to see if they could discover why some wounds heal while others do not. They found mice with a particular mutation in a gene had more harmful bacteria and healed more slowly than mice with the normal variant of the gene.

The gene has been linked to Crohn’s disease and is known to help cells identify and react to bacteria.

“Presumably, the mice’s defect in the ability to identify bacteria means that they aren’t able to mount the right type of response,” suggests Dr. Hardman, who says their findings are consistent with the idea that our genes determine the mix of bacteria on our skin, and this in turn affects how it heals when wounded.

“Taken together,” he concludes, “our studies in humans and mice offer good evidence that the skin microbiome has a direct effect on how we heal.”

He says by learning more about skin bacteria perhaps we can help doctors decide treatments that address the harmful bacteria without affecting any potential beneficial ones.

The Medical Research Council and the Healing Foundation funded the study.

In 2012, Medical News Today learned how a common, apparently harmless, skin-dwelling bacterium may be responsible for chronic sinusitis, a painful recurring condition that strikes more than 1 in 10 Americans every year.

In that study, researchers at the University of California-San Francisco suggested that sinusitis may be connected to the loss of normal microbial diversity that occurs in the sinuses as a result of infection when they are subsequently colonized by the culprit bacterium Corynebacterium tuberculostearicum.