Harmless viruses on skin a potential acne treatment

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(CBS News) Could the secret to keeping acne at bay be a virus?

Scientists at UCLA and the University of Pittsburgh have discovered that "phages", which are 11 types of harmless viruses that live on our skin, has the natural ability to infect and kill the acne-causing bacteria Propionibacterium acnes. They hope their discovery could lead to new acne treatments and other medical advances.

"There are two fairly obvious potential directions that could exploit this kind of research," study co-author Graham Hatfull, Eberly Family Professor of Biotechnology at the University of Pittsburgh, said in the press release. "The first is the possibility of using the phages directly as a therapy for acne. The second is the opportunity to use phage-derived components for their activities."

Acne affects 40 to 50 million Americans and is the most common skin disorder, according to The American Academy of Dermatology. About 85 percent of people will have acne at some point in their lives, and by mid-teens, 40 percent of people will have acne or acne scarring.

Acne is caused when hair follicles become clogged with oil and dead skin cells, and then gets infected with Propionibacterium acnes bacteria and becomes inflamed, according the Mayo Clinic. Although the bacterium regularly occurs on human skin, it increases during puberty, leading to more acne outbreaks.

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.

"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," Hatfull said.

He hopes that the scientists can turn the phages into a topical treatment to help combat acne.

Lead author Dr. Robert Modlin, Chief, professor of Dermatology and professor of Microbiology, Immunology & Molecular Genetics at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine, told the BBC 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," he said.

The study was published in mBio on Sept. 25, 2012.

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