Acne Virus: Our Bodies’ Own Acne Treatment

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The opaque regions of the plate contain a confluent lawn of P. acnes bacteria, and the circular clear areas within the lawn of bacteria are phage plaques, which are areas where the bacteria within the lawn have been killed. Photo by Dr. Marinelli

Acne, a common adolescent skin issue, is also troublesome for some adults.

Not only are pimples annoying, but they can have a negative impact on self-esteem.

There are many anti-acne products, but there is no product like the one that researchers have discovered in a new study published today.

And get this: it’s living on our own bodies.

What Causes Acne?

In the study, published September 25, 2012 in the online edition of the American Society for Microbiology’s mBio, scientists studied two bacteriums called, Propionibacterium acnes (P.acnes) and P. acnes phages. Propionibacterium acnes lives in our pores, and can trigger acne. P. acnes phages lives on our skin and kills the Propionibacterium acnes.

Decoded Science had the opportunity to interview first author, Laura Marinelli, Ph.D., and I asked her what is it about P. acnes that triggers acne?

She responded: “Acne is a complex disease, and a number of different factors contribute to its development.  We know that sex hormones, the amount of sebum or oil on the skin, and the immune system play a role in causing acne; however, there is a lot of evidence implicating P. acnes as an important trigger.  These bacteria live in our sebaceous follicles (or pores) and have the ability to release a number of tissue damaging compounds.  In some cases, this sets off an inflammatory response that contributes to the development of acne.”

New Acne Treatment

The objects in the EM are P. acnes bacteriophage particles. Each phage has an isometric head – also referred to as the capsid and a long flexible tail. The phage DNA is contained within the phage head. Photo by Charles Bowman.

So how does this work? Scientists found that P. acnes phages has multiple features that kill the P. acnes. This is what scientists hope to use to develop a new acne treatment. Dr. Marinelli explained further, saying: “We envision two potential avenues for the development of a phage-based therapy for acne.  On one hand, it might be possible to use a formulation of active phage particles, that would kill P. acnes and reduce the number of bacteria on the skin.  

This process would result in the production of more phage particles (when bacteria are infected and killed by phages they release more phages!), and thus has the potential for long-term control of acne.  In this regard, this sort of treatment could permanently alter the microbial composition of human skin.  Thus, while the potential to shift a patient’s microbiome towards a more healthy (acne-free) state, we also need to carefully consider and study the long-term effects before pursuing this avenue for treatment.

It might also possible to use an active protein derived from the phage known as the endolysin. This protein is what is responsible for breaking down and killing the bacterial cell during phage infection, and future research will be directed toward determining if this protein can kill P. acnes bacteria on its own.

Treatments based on this protein would a more self-limiting alternative to therapies containing whole phages.  In this regard it’s important to remember that P. acnes is a normal commensal organism on the skin, and we do not want to eliminate it completely. Rather, our goal is to reduce the number of bacteria on the skin, which studies indicate would reduce the inflammation in acne.  Using a protein-based therapy – if effective – would also be likely to have fewer long-term effects on the patient’s skin microbiome.”

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