Dreaming of clear skin? New approach leads to employing viruses to get rid of acne

BARCELONA — You would think pimples are left in the past, buried in your high school memories — but the unfortunate reality is that adult acne is still a thing. Fortunately, there’s good news. An international team of researchers has developed a way to get rid of acne and prevent future breakouts.

There are many factors that can cause acne, making it hard to treat. One approach is by tackling the bacterial species Cutibacterium acne (C. acnes). It is found in high amounts on the skin in both people with and without acne. The key difference between those with a clear face is the balance of the skin microbiome. In other words, those who frequently deal with acne have an abnormally high number of certain C. acnes strains, throwing the microbiome off-balance.

One tried and failed approach is to use antibiotics. While antibiotics do get rid of C. acnes, they cannot discriminate between other skin bacteria. Elimination of beneficial bacteria can result in a further imbalance in the skin microbiome.

To avoid disrupting the microbiome’s balance, the team used viruses called bacteriophages. These viruses infect bacteria and with some modifications can help regulate their numbers.

“In our study we demonstrated that through bacteriophage therapy it is possible to modulate the composition of C. acnes strains over time. We can reduce the strains associated with acne without affecting the ones that have beneficial features,” explains Marc Güell, study coordinator and senior author, in a university release.

The researchers took some bacteriophages from the skin and genetically manipulated their DNA. Doing so allow the bacteriophage to recognize their own genetic material versus those of others. “Using specific bacteriophages we attack pathogenic strains, which are the ones that do not have this defence strategy. The beneficial strains do have this defensive system against bacteriophages, so they are protected against infection,” says lead author Nastassia Knödlseder.

The results provide a new framework to tackle acne and other skin conditions. For example, Knödlseder says bacteriophage could help to “clean” other existing and harmful strains in the skin. Clearing up space in the microbiome provides an opportunity to introduce and keep new bacteria without disrupting the equilibrium in the skin.

“This work can help us to modulate the microbiome more efficiently, both to eliminate unwanted strains and to facilitate the introduction of new therapies,” proposes Güell.

The study is published in PLOS Pathogens.

About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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