Acne Goes Viral

T4 Bacteriophage

A bacteriophage; can this cure acne? (Photo credit: Jon_Tucker)

Gabrielle Petrancuri (1 PM Micro) found this article about a possible cure for acne, which proposes to use bacteriophages. Phages are one of my favorite topics here at YCPMicro, and you can read more here and here. If you would like to read about another alternative to the treatment to skin blemishes, this student guest post from last semester showed how the immune system might be tricked. Here is Gabrielle’s summary:

Acne can be defined as a skin condition that consists of pimples, deeper lumps, and plugged pores.  Every year acne affects millions of people worldwide.  Specifically, nearly 90% of Americans will be affected by acne at one time in their life, most commonly in their teenage years.  Some treatments include: antibiotics, accutane, and peroxide.  Although dermatologists and researchers have been taking steps to prevent and reduce acne, no one treatment has been fully successful.  As a result, many individuals have low self-esteem or self-image, and may even feel depressed.

However, recent research by UCLA and University of Pittsburg scientists has led doctors to believe that there may be a cure for acne: “a harmless virus living on our skin that naturally seeks out and kills the bacteria that cause pimples.”

By looking at the microorganism Propionibacterium acnes and a family of viruses known as P. acnes phages, the scientists took one step closer to reaching their goal of finding a cure for acne.   Propionibacterium acnes are a bacteria that sets off acne production and that exists in the skin pores of the human body. Acne is produced when P. acnes irritates the immune system. Meanwhile, P. acnes phages are a family of viruses that infect and destroy Propionibacterium acnes without harming the human skin.

In order to learn about the effects of P. acnes and P. acne phages, the scientists used pore-cleansing strips to collect acne bacteria and P.acnes phages from the noses of volunteers with and without acne.  After collecting and observing the P. acnes phages, they found that the viruses had many similar characteristics and most had the ability to kill their hosts.  Both of these characteristics made P. acnes phages a prime suspect for a new anti-acne treatment.

Graham Hatfull, the professor of biological sciences at the University of Pittsburgh said “Our finding provide valuable insights into acne and the bacterium that causes it.  The lack of genetic diversity among the viruses that attack the acne bacterium implies that viral-based strategies may help control this distressing skin disorder.”

P. acne phages are targeted to harm and kill only P. acne bacteria.  As a result, P. acne phages will not harm human skin or any other bacteria existing on its surfaces.  For this reason, P. acne phages are a new candidate for anti-acne treatment.

After the study, many experts questioned the results because it does not verify or explain why some people have clear skin and others do not.   The researchers response to this was that those with healthy skin have an abundance of Propionibacterium acnes phages that prevent acne production.  Meanwhile, those with unclear skin do not have enough P. acne phage production, and as a result, they cannot prevent the bacteria from aggravating the immune system.

In order to use P. acne phages as an anti-acne therapeutic treatment, more research must be conducted. Specifically, researchers should start growing this specific type of phages in the lab and implanting them into anti-acne treatments to test their ability in preventing acne.   This research could benefit millions of individuals in the future.


About ycpmicro

My name is David Singleton, and I am an Associate Professor of Microbiology at York College of Pennsylvania. My main course is BIO230, a course taken by allied-health students at YCP. Views on this site are my own.

Posted on October 5, 2012, in Guest Post, Microbes in the News and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I really like the idea of phages as potential therapy, because they demonstrate the principle of selective toxicity very nicely. Can anybody come up with a reason why this might be so, with just a bit of research?

    It could be worth BONUS if you came up with enough.

  2. Gabrielle Petrancuri

    Bateriophages are bacterial viruses that invade bacterial cells and interfer with the bacteria’s metabolism, which causes the bacteria to lyse. They do so by injecting their genetic material into the bacteria. They show selective toxicity because they only infect one type of bacteria. For example, in my summary, Propionibacterium acne phages only infect Propionibacterium acne; therefore, they do not harm any human cells.

    • That’s exactly right. There is actually a branch of medicine called “phage therapy”, where prospectors search for novel phages that might infect and kill specific bacterial pathogens. The drawback of the approach is that these therapeutic agents would be considered extremely narrow spectrum, and a specific phage might only be effective against one bacterial species, and not even a very closely related distinct species.

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