Could what’s already present in the skin be the newest tool in anti-acne therapy?

By Michelle Yeomans

- Last updated on GMT

Killer virus: Dark circles reveal where P. acnes virus has killed off acne bacteria
Killer virus: Dark circles reveal where P. acnes virus has killed off acne bacteria

Related tags P. acnes Acne vulgaris

Scientists at UCLA and the University of Pittsburgh have discovered a harmless virus on the skin they say could be a promising new tool against acne, as it can naturally seek out and kill the bacteria that cause pimples.

With this discovery, Dr. Robert Modlin, chief of dermatology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA says that "Harnessing a virus that naturally preys on the bacteria that cause pimples could offer a promising new tool against the physical and emotional scars of severe acne​.”

Published in the online edition of the American Society for Microbiology's journal mBio, the research is said to provide valuable insights into acne and the bacterium that causes it for those working in the area of skin research or acne treatments.


There are two microbes that live on the skin, Propionibacterium acnes​, a bacterium that can trigger acne, and P. acnes ​phages, a family of viruses that although harmless to humans, are programmed to infect and kill the P. acnes​ bacteria that cause the swollen, red bumps associated with acne.

Most effective treatments work by reducing this amount of P. acnes ​bacteria in the skin however it is still an area where few treatments really target the problem in a safe and effective way.  

"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​," says Dr. Jenny Kim, director of the UCLA Clinic for Acne, Rosacea and Aesthetics.

"It's time we identified a new way to safely treat the common disorder​," she adds.

The research

The study features the researchers using over-the-counter pore-cleansing strips to lift acne bacteria and the P. acnes​ phages from the noses of both pimply and clear-skinned volunteers.

As the team sequenced the phages' genomes, they discovered that the viruses possess multiple features, making them ideal candidates for the development of a new anti-acne therapy.

"The lack of genetic diversity among the viruses that attack the acne bacterium implies that viral-based strategies may help control this distressing skin disorder​,” says Laura Marinelli, one of Modlin's researchers.  

"This trait suggests that they offer strong potential for targeted therapeutic use​," she adds.

If already present in the skin – why the acne problem?

Based on the findings, that phages naturally attack the P. acnes​ bacteria, this publication wondered why people still suffer from acne.

One hypothesis, the researchers say, is that those with healthy skin may have a population of phages that help keep the P. acnes​ bacteria in check, while in others, the phage activity is insufficient in preventing the bacteria from aggravating the immune system.

From here, the research team plans to isolate the active protein from the P. acnes​ virus and test whether it is as effective as the whole virus in killing acne bacteria.

If laboratory testing proves successful, they say they will then study the compound's safety and effectiveness in combating acne for potential acne treatment products.

Related topics Formulation & Science Skin Care

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