Going Viral to Kill Zits: Pitt/UCLA Scientists Uncover Viruses with Potential to Reduce Acne

Issue Date: 
October 1, 2012

By harnessing nonthreatening viruses already living on human skin, doctors may soon have a new, more natural anti-acne therapy, according to research published online Sept. 25 in mBio by scientists at the University of Pittsburgh and University of California, Los Angeles.

Graham Hatfull, Pitt's Eberly Family Professor of Biotechnology and professor of biological sciences“Our findings provide valuable insights into acne and the bacterium that causes it,” said corresponding author Graham Hatfull, Pitt Eberly Family Professor of Biotechnology and professor of biological sciences. “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.”

The Pitt/UCLA team looked at two classes of little microbes that share a big name: Propionibacterium acnes, a bacterium thriving in our pores that can trigger acne, and the Propionibacterium acnes’ phages, a family of viruses that live on human skin. The viruses are actually harmless to humans and programmed to infect and kill the aforementioned P. acnes bacteria which, when aggravated, affect the immune system and cause the swollen, red bumps associated with acne. Most effective treatments work by reducing the number of P. acnes bacteria on the skin.

“Acne affects millions of people, and yet we have few treatments that are both safe and effective,” said principal investigator Robert Modlin, chief of dermatology and professor of microbiology, immunology, and molecular genetics at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. “Using viruses that naturally prey on the bacteria that cause pimples could offer a promising new tool against the physical and emotional scars of severe acne.”

Using over-the-counter pore-cleansing strips from the drugstore, the researchers lifted the acne bacterium and the P. acnes viruses from the noses of both acne-affected and clear-skinned volunteers. When Pitt researchers sequenced the viruses’ genomes, they discovered that the viruses possess multiple features—such as small size, limited diversity, and the broad ability to kill their hosts, making them ideal candidates for the development of a new anti-acne therapy.

“Viruses are programmed to target and kill specific bacteria, so P. acnes viruses will attack only P. acnes bacteria but not others, like E. coli,” said first author Laura Marinelli, a UCLA postdoctoral researcher in Modlin’s laboratory. “This trait suggests that they offer strong potential for targeted therapeutic use.”

Acne affects nearly 90 percent of Americans at some point in their lives, yet scientists know little about what causes the disorder and have made narrow progress in developing new strategies for treating it. Dermatologists’ arsenal of anti-acne tools—benzoyl perioxide, antibiotics, and Accutane—hasn’t expanded in decades.

The research team plans to continue its research by isolating the active protein from the P. acnes viruses and testing whether it is as effective as the whole viruses in killing acne bacteria. If laboratory testing proves successful, the researchers will study the safety and effectiveness of the compound they develop in combating acne in people. 

The study was supported by grants from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.