Print options

September 27, 2012

Viruses Eyed as a Treatment for Acne

by Jessica Berman

It is the curse of millions of teenagers and young adults around the world - a face disfigured by the red, swollen blemishes of an acne infection.  Scrubs, creams and antibiotics are not always effective in treating this  bacterial skin condition.  Now, researchers say they have identified a class of viruses that could give acne victims the cure they've been seeking.  

Acne is among the most common skin complaints, according to Jenny Kim, a dermatologist who heads the Clinic for Acne, Rosacea and Aesthetics at the University of California, Los Angeles.  Kim says acne is a persistent source of misery for millions of adolescents.

“I think the misconception is that it’s not important.  But for patients who suffer from acne, it’s a very, very disabling or concerning disease.  And because acne occurs most commonly in teens or young people when you are vulnerable to changes on your face or how you appear, it could really affect people’s psychological well-being," said Kim.

Skin doctors are feeling increasingly helpless to do anything about acne, which is caused by a stubborn bacteria called P. acnes. The microbes take up residence in skin pores amid the hair follicles and oil, and cause inflammation that results in many small pockets of infection - commonly called pimples.

The usual treatment is to use antibiotics to kill the acne-causing bacteria.  But dermatologist Kim says upwards of 70 percent of the acne bacterial strains around the world are becoming resistant to the standard drug arsenal of antibiotic pills and creams.

There are stronger drugs like isotretinoin formerly known as Accutane, that can stop an acne infection and promote healing of the skin's damanged landscape.  But this drug can cause devastating birth defects in women and has been linked to psychosis and suicidal thoughts in a small sub-set of patients.

Now, Kim and colleagues at UCLA and the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania are investigating a totally different approach to treating acne using bacteriophages, a type of virus that can insert itself into bacterial hosts, including P. acnes and which can destroy the pimple-producing microbes.

The researchers have isolated and examined the genetic structures of 11 P. acne bacteriophages taken from patients.  It turns out people with persistent acne have phages with genetic structures very similar to the P. acne bacteria they inhabit, according to experts, who say that’s the reason why phages don’t kill the microbes.

So Kim says scientists took phages from different individuals and applied them to a variety of P. acnes.

“And they were able to kill different P. acne strains from different patients.  So, what that suggests is that the virus can be used to kill P. acnes from many people and may improve acne," she said.

The key now, says Kim, is identifying which proteins among the dozen phages examined have the broadest action against the most common forms of acne.

Kim foresees the day when scientists can treat or cure acne with topical skin creams formulated using viral phages.

“We’re a long ways away from that but it’s a novel idea in that we don’t have a phage-based therapy for acne or other skin conditions.  So we are very excited about this," said Kim.

The study on potential phage therapy for acne was published in the journal mBio.