New acne treatment? Scientists discover a virus that kills acne causing bacteria

Lia Grainger
Shine On
September 25, 2012

For those who suffer from severe acne, the often debilitating skin condition can be incredibly painful, both physically and emotionally. To make matters worse, there is currently no consistent treatment that is free of side effects.

Now, a team of scientists have discovered that a group of viruses known as "phages" are able to infect and kill the bacteria that cause acne. They're hoping the discovery may lead to the development of a new treatment for the skin condition that will not carry with it the side effects of current treatments, reports the BBC.

Acne occurs when tiny hair follicles become clogged with sebum, a naturally occurring oily substance that keeps the skin from drying out. Bacteria called Propionibacterium acnes can then infect these clogged follicles, leading to pus, inflammation, and eventually scarring.

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Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Pittsburgh have been examining 11 kinds of phages, tiny harmless viruses that occur naturally on the skin's surface. While examining these phages, they observed that all 11 contained a special enzyme that gives them the power to break down and destroy acne causing bacteria. They are hopeful that the viruses could perhaps be integrated into a topical cream that users could apply directly to problem areas.

Dr. Benjamin Barankin, a Toronto dermatologist and medical director of the Toronto Dermatology Centre, welcomes this new development.

"We're always looking for new options to treat acne," says Barankin. He says acne is often treated with antibiotics, but that antibiotic resistance is always a concern, as new and stronger strains of acne develop.

He is cautious, however, about how far reaching this new viral solution could be.

"Acne isn't that simple," says Barankin. "It involves the interplay of hormones, oil and sebum production, the bacteria P. acnes and the immune system, so this treatment wouldn't necessarily be the cure-all, as it only deals with one of the factors, maybe two."

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Dermatologists would likely still look at ways to treat hormones and excess oil production, but a virus-based treatment would be able to reduce the use of antibiotics, which is always a good thing.

According to Barankin, acne affects about 80-90 per cent of Canadian teenagers to some degree, and about 25 per cent of adults,  predominantly women.

"This will be a great addition to our therapeutic armamentarium and likely would have few if any side effects," says Barankin.

For dermatologist and the people suffering from the condition that they treat, a virus has never looked so good.

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