Zits begone: It might be possible some day to apply a cream that contains a virus that kills acne-causing bacteria to ward off zits, a new study suggests.
The study, published Tuesday in the journal mBio, analyzed the genomes of viruses that attack the skin bacteria linked to acne problems from 11 volunteers.
Using over-the-counter pore cleaning strips, the researchers peeled off samples of phages -- viruses that attack bacteria -- from the noses of pimply and unblemished individuals.
The researchers were astounded to find that these viruses were remarkably similar genetically from patient to patient, said corresponding author Graham Hatfull, professor of biotechnology and biological sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. The fact that there was so little difference between these viruses from nose to nose suggests that their bacterial prey -- in this case, the bacteria that lead to acne -- are ill-equipped to defend themselves.
These findings "indicate the possibility of using these phages as a targeted approach to acne treatment," the study authors wrote.
Acne is the most common skin problem across the United States, according to the American Academy of Dermatology website. Acne affects 40 to 50 million Americans at any given time, and can lead to disfigurement and problems with self-esteem.
The increase in antibiotic-resistant strains of the skin bacteria linked to acne highlights the need for new and better acne treatments, the study authors wrote.
Dr. Doris Day, clinical assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center and author of "100 Questions and Answers about Acne," explained how the common skin bacteria, Propionibacterium acnes -- P. acnes for short -- helps pimples develop.
"You have a follicle, which is a pore," said Day, who was not involved with the study. "For [some] reason, the skin cells that line it don't slough off as they're supposed to. Once the opening gets blocked, then the oil and skin cells behind it start to build up. That's your whitehead."
Day explained that when the opening to the pore is clogged, there is little to no oxygen -- the perfect environment for bacteria like P. acnes to thrive.
"Everything it likes to eat is right there," she said.
The hope, Day said, is that dermatologists will be able to tailor treatments to attack and destroy P. acnes in a way that is currently not possible -- a viral smart bomb, if you will, against acne germs.
How could future anti-zit treatments work? There are two ways, said study author Hatfull.
One method would be to create a virus-containing cream that patients could someday slather on pimply areas to kill off P. acnes. Since this virus is harmless to humans and already lives on our skin, he said, there would be no worry of side effects.
Using viruses to wipe out bacteria is not as far-fetched as it sounds. A food safety product containing viruses to fight disease-causing bacteria – such as Listeria monocytogenes -- has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to prevent foodborne illness, the study authors said.
A second potential acne treatment is to use endolysins, a special enzyme produced by the virus that kills bacteria on contact, Hatfull said.