Common Human Viruses Could Lead To Acne Cure

Lawrence LeBlond for – Your Universe Online

Acne, Propionibacterium acnes, is a common human skin disease that affects hundreds of millions of people every year. It is also the bane of teenagers, causing insecurity and disrupting social life for many. But there may be new hope for pimple poppers everywhere. A new study suggests viruses could be used to treat acne, and effectively kill acne-causing bacteria.

By utilizing a harmless virus that lives on the skin, scientists say it could potentially pave the way for a breakthrough in viral products that treat the condition that is most commonly associated with adolescence.

Researchers, led by Dr. Graham Hatfull, of the University of Pittsburgh, have identified, isolated and studied the genomes of 11 viruses (phage) that can infect the acne-causing bacteria and destroy it. Hatfull and colleagues, including those from UCLA, plan to study these viruses further and see if they can harness them as a therapy for skin treatment.

“Acne affects millions of people, yet we have few treatments that are both safe and effective,” said principal investigator Dr. Robert Modlin, chief of dermatology and professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “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.”

“There are two fairly obvious potential directions that could exploit this kind of research,” said Hatfull. “The first is the possibility of using the phages directly as a therapy for acne. The second is the opportunity to use phage-derived components for their activities.”

P. acnes is a typical bacteria found on human skin, but it spreads widely during puberty, drawing out an inflammatory response that can lead to acne breakouts. Although there are effective treatments already on the market for treating the often embarrassing condition, antibiotic-resistant strains of P. acnes have emerged, highlighting the necessity for new and improved treatments.

To find an improved therapy, Pittsburgh and UCLA researchers enlisted volunteers with and without acne, isolated the phages and acnes bacteria from them, and then sequenced the genomes of the viruses. Surprisingly, the 11 phages discovered were remarkably similar, sharing more than 85 percent of their DNA, an unheard of level of similarity among viruses. The lack of genetic diversity suggests that resistance to viral therapies would be less likely to occur, the researchers said.

“Our findings provide valuable insights into acne and the bacterium that causes it,” noted Hatfull, who is Eberly Family Professor of Biotechnology at Pitt´s Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). “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.”

Acne affects nearly 90 percent of Americans at some point in their lives, typically during adolescence, when hormones from puberty are on the rise. Yet scientists know little else about what truly causes the disorder and have only made limited progress in developing new therapies to battle the disease.

The most common, and most effective tools for fighting acne–benzoyl peroxide, antibiotics and Accutane–have been around for decades and have not been vastly improved upon.

“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,” explained study coauthor Dr. Jenny Kim, director of the UCLA Clinic for Acne, Rosacea and Aesthetics. “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.”

The researchers noted that all of the phages identified carry a gene that makes the protein endolysin, an enzyme that is thought to break down bacterial cell walls and kill the bacteria.

Hatfull said enzymes like this one are used in other applications, which suggests that endolysin from these phages might also be useful as a topical anti-acne treatment. “This work has given us very useful information about the diversity of that set of enzymes and helps pave the way for thinking about potential applications,” he noted.

Future research will explore how these phages might be used therapeutically, but also how they can be used to manipulate the bacteria they infect, said Hatfull.

“This news is very exciting. Acne is a common condition that affects up to eight in 10 individuals [aged] between 11 and 30 in the UK, and at present there is no ‘cure’ for the skin disease,” Hermione Lawson, of the British Skin Foundation, told BBC News. “We understand how distressing the symptoms of acne can be for its sufferers and welcome any developments that can lead to a cure or at least a better understanding of the disease.”

The study is published today in the American Society for Microbiology´s journal mBio.

The study was supported by grants from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

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