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Could Viruses Be Used to Treat Acne?

Viral phages kill acne-causing bacteria, researchers find (Sept. 25)

Physicians may someday use viruses to kill the bacteria that cause acne, according to researchers at the University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA).

The new findings were announced on September 25 and were published online in mBio, the journal of the American Society for Microbiology.

"Acne affects millions of people, yet we have few treatments that are both safe and effective," said principal investigator Dr. Robert Modlin. "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."

The scientists looked at Propionibacterium acnes, a bacterium that thrives in pores, and P. acnes phages, a family of viruses that live on human skin. The viruses are harmless to humans but are programmed to infect and kill P. acnes bacteria. Most acne treatments work by reducing the amount of P. acnes bacteria on the skin.

Using over-the-counter pore-cleansing strips, the researchers lifted acne bacteria and the P. acnes phages from the noses of both acne patients and healthy volunteers.

When the team sequenced the phages' genomes, they discovered that the viruses possess multiple features — such as limited diversity and the ability to kill their hosts — that make them ideal candidates for the development of a new anti-acne therapy.

"Phages are programmed to target and kill specific bacteria, so P. acnes phages will attack only P. acnes bacteria but not others, like E. coli," said lead author Laura Marinelli, a postdoctoral researcher. "This trait suggests that they offer strong potential for targeted therapeutic use."

Acne affects nearly 90% of Americans at some point in their lives, but dermatology researchers know little about what causes the disorder, and the arsenal of anti-acne tools — benzoyl peroxide, antibiotics, and Accutane (isotretinoin) — hasn't grown in decades.

The UCLA researchers plan 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, the researchers will study the compound's safety and effectiveness in combating acne in human subjects.

For more information, visit the UCLA Web site.

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