LOS ANGELES – Ancient Egyptians were vexed by it, using sulfur to dry it out. Shakespeare wrote of its “bubukles, and whelks, and knobs, and flames o’ fire.”
Today, acne plagues us still. Doctors can cure some cancers and transplant vital organs like hearts, but they still have trouble getting rid of the pimples and splotches that plague 85 percent of us at some time in our lives – usually, when we’re teenagers and particularly sensitive about they way we look.
But new research hints that there’s hope for zapping zits in the future, thanks to advances in genetic research.
Using state-of-the-art DNA sequencing techniques to evaluate the bacteria lurking in the pores of 101 study volunteers’ noses, scientists discovered a particular strain of Propionibacterium acnes bacteria that may be able to defend against other versions of P. acnes that pack a bigger breakout-causing punch.
As best as dermatologists can tell, zits occur when bacteria that reside in human skin, including P. acnes, feed on oils in the pores and prompt an immune response that results in red, sometimes pus-filled bumps. Subjects who had the newly discovered bacterial strain weren’t suffering from whiteheads or blackheads, according to a report published Thursday in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.
Someday, the realization that “not all P. acnes are created equal” might help dermatologists devise treatments that more precisely target bad strains while allowing beneficial ones to thrive, said Dr. Noah Craft, a dermatologist at the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute who conducted the study with colleagues from the University of California, Los Angeles and Washington University in St. Louis.
Doctors might prescribe probiotic creams that deliver “good” P. acnes to the face the same way a daily serving of yogurt helps restore healthy bacteria in the digestive tract.
“There are healthy strains that we need on our skin,” Craft said. “The idea that you’d use a nuclear bomb to kill everything – what we’re currently doing with antibiotics and other treatments – just doesn’t make sense.”
The research is part of an broad effort backed by the National Institutes of Health to characterize the so-called human microbiome: the trillions of microbes that live in and on our bodies and evolve along with us, sometimes causing illness and often promoting good health.
Most of the microbiome attention so far has gone to studying species in the gut, said study leader Huiying Li, an assistant professor of molecular and medical pharmacology at UCLA’s Geffen School of Medicine. But the NIH’s Human Microbiome Project, which funds her research, also looks at microbial communities in the nasal passages, the mouth, the urogenital tract and the skin.
Li said she became interested in studying acne because the skin microbiome seemed understudied.
The research team recruited 101 patients in their teens and 20s from dermatology clinics in Southern California. Among them, 49 had acne and 52 had “normal skin” and were not experiencing breakouts but had come to the clinics for other problems.