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A Virus That Zaps Zits?

Early research finds common strain on skin seeks out, destroys bacteria behind acne

By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Sept. 25 (HealthDay News) -- A virus to zap zits?

California researchers report in the Sept. 25 online edition of the journal mBio that they have taken a step in that direction, with the discovery that a harmless virus that lives on your skin seeks out and destroys the bacteria that can cause acne.

Harnessing this virus, or even just a part of it, might one day lead to a treatment that will replace current treatments, many of which have potentially serious side effects.

Although the results are preliminary, the concept has potential, said Dr. Michele Green, a dermatologist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

"There are really limited . . . treatments we've had in the past and if some new drugs could be formulated that don't wipe out some of the immune system, that are more targeted, it could be really exciting," noted Green, who was not involved with the new study. "Half of what people come into my office for is for acne. This really has widespread promise."

In addition to potentially affecting the immune system, drugs currently available for acne have other side effects. Antibiotics such as tetracycline, for instance, have mild side effects such as diarrhea and more serious ones including difficulty breathing. In addition, many bacteria have become resistant to widely used antibiotics.

Accutane, another drug for acne, can cause birth defects if taken by pregnant women.

Acne is often caused by the Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes) bacterium, although hormones, oily skin and other factors also play a role.

The idea of using phages, which are viruses that break down bacteria, therapeutically has been around for a hundred years, said study author Laura Marinelli, a postdoctoral fellow at University of California, Los Angeles.

And they have had success in animal models of the bacteria Shigella and Escherichia coli, as well as Staphylococcus aureus.

A phage is also approved to control Listeria contamination in meat.

In the new study, researchers used over-the-counter deep-cleansing pore strips to scrape P. acnes bacteria off the nose skin of individuals both with and without acne.

They then sequenced the genomes of 11 bacteriophages and found several striking features that distinguish this phage from others.

One was the fairly limited genetic diversity of the organism, which indicates that the phage would have a targeted effect if used therapeutically. That means it would fight the acne and not bother the body in ancillary ways.

The findings, said Marinelli, "lay the groundwork" for future research.

One next step is to isolate an active protein from acne phages that play an important role in killing the bacteria.

"We're in the process of purifying that protein and understanding how it kills the acne bacteria," Marinelli explained. "Potentially, that protein might be simpler and cleaner [to use as a treatment] than using phages themselves."

More information

The American Academy of Dermatology has more on acne.


SOURCES: Laura Marinelli, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow, University of California, Los Angeles; Michele Green, M.D., dermatologist, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; Sept. 25, 2012, mBio, online

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