Viral treatment offers hope to acne sufferers

Many of us will have suffered with spots or pimples throughout our teenage years; however, for some people it is much worse than a few inconvenient spots. Many suffer the misery, pain and embarrassment of acne which can have a devastating effect on someone’s life. In fact acne affects eight out of ten people between the ages of 11 and 30 in the UK and there is currently no cure for this emotionally and physically scarring condition.

There are many treatments available for acne with varying levels of success. There are: antibiotics, topical creams and Retin-A Gel, and for female sufferers, there are hormone based treatments such as Dianette (oral contraceptive) and non hormonal Spironolactone. Unfortunately there is no product that works every time for everyone.

However, now according to scientists from the University of California, Los Angeles, and at the University of Pittsburgh, the cure to your acne problems could be right under your nose … or, in fact, on any part of your face. Scientists have found that common, benign viruses living on your skin could be natural and effective killers of the bacteria that cause the most common kind of acne.

While many factors can lead to an outbreak of common acne, known medically as acne vulgaris, the underlying cause is the bacterium Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes), which covers human skin. Sudden growth of these bacteria can alarm the immune system and cause inflammation, resulting in pimples.

Acne is most common during adolescence because, in part, the natural surge of sex hormones can cause hair follicle glands to grow larger and make more sebum, an oily substance that lubricates the skin. The P. acnes live primarily on the fatty acids of the sebum. More sebum means more P. acnes.

Current treatments are based on the various factors: cleaning pores of sebum so as to remove the bacteria’s food source, antibiotics to kill bacteria, anti-inflammatory medicine to reduce swelling or hormonal treatments, particularly for adults suffering from hormonal imbalances. Yet each approach has its limitations. For example, antibiotics ultimately can fail because the P. acnes can develop natural resistance. And many acne medicines have adverse side effects.

Although antibiotics can be effective in treating acne, antibiotic-resistant strains of P. acnes have emerged, highlighting the need for better therapies. This where the virus, called a phage comes in. It is naturally built to target and kill bacteria that cause acne, P. acnes.

These viruses are a type called bacteriophages, meaning they feed only on bacteria and not on human cells, unlike viruses such as HIV or poliovirus. Because certain bacteriophages naturally seek out the very bacteria that cause acne and live in the same environment, they could be better at controlling acne than the foreign concoctions now in use. When pitted against the facial bacteria in the lab, the viruses easily mopped up their acne causing foes.

After conducting a genetic analysis of these phages, known for decades, scientists suspect that new acne medicines can be made from them. For the study, scientists isolated and found the genetic sequence for the phages and Propionibacterium acnes, from human volunteers with and without acne.

They discovered that the phages make a protein called endolysin, which breaks down the bacteria before killing it. They also found the phages shared 85 percent of their DNA, which is unusual for viruses. This means if the viruses were developed as a treatment, it would not be likely for immune resistance to develop.

Graham Hatfull, Eberly Family Professor of Biotechnology at the University of Pittsburgh, said, “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 hopes that the scientists can turn the phages into a topical treatment to help combat acne.

And this was a view backed up by lead author Dr Robert Modlin, Chief Professor of Dermatology, Microbiology, Immunology & Molecular Genetics, at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, who said, “That while acne is a problem that many experience, there aren’t that many ways to cure it. 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.”

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