A specific species of bacteria, Propionibacterium acnes, is a major cause of the unpleasant, sometimes disfiguring disease doctors call acne vulgaris. The bacteria live inside the pits in the skin that contain hair follicles and sweat glands.
But the acne bug has an enemy: a kind of virus called a bacteriophage, or phage for short. Phages inject their genetic material into bacteria, forcing them to make more and more new phages until they burst.
Now UCLA researchers Laura Marinelli, PhD, Robert Modlin, MD, and colleagues have taken a close look at 11 different phages that kill acne bacteria. They find that unlike most phages, the ones capable of killing P. acnes are closely related to one another, with relatively little difference in their genetic makeup.
Most of the phages were able to kill most strains of acne bacteria.
"Phages are programmed to target and kill specific bacteria, so P. acnes phages will attack only P. acnes bacteria, but not others like E. coli," Marinelli says.
These properties "makes these phages ideal candidates for the development of a phage-based topical anti-acne therapy," Marinelli, Modlin, and colleagues suggest.
The phages also make an enzyme that dissolves the cell walls of acne bacteria. This enzyme itself might make a good acne treatment, the researchers suggest.
The new findings appear in the September/October issue of mBio, the journal of the American Society for Microbiology.