By Robert Preidt
The therapy capitalizes on recent insights into the importance of the "microbiome" -- the trillions of helpful bacteria that live in people's digestive tracts and on their skin.
"By applying bacteria from a healthy source to the skin of people with atopic dermatitis [eczema], we aim to alter the skin microbiome in a way that will relieve symptoms and free people from the burden of constant treatment," explained the study's lead researcher, Dr. Ian Myles.
Eczema is an inflammatory skin ailment that renders the skin itchy and dry, and vulnerable to rashes and infections. Both adults and children can suffer from the condition. The exact cause of the illness isn't known, but it's believed that bacteria and other microbes that live on the skin could play a major role.
In the new research, live Roseomonas mucosa -- a bacterium that's naturally present on the skin -- was taken from people without eczema and applied to the skin of 10 adult and five pediatric eczema patients.
Twice weekly for six weeks, adult participants spritzed sugar water containing increasing amounts of the "good" bacteria onto their inner elbow and one other skin area of their choice. They also continued with their regular eczema treatment. Kids in the study underwent a similar protocol for 12 weeks, then upped the dose to every other day for another four weeks.
After a few weeks, the severity of the patients' eczema was reduced, and some reported being able to cut back on steroid creams they'd used to treat their eczema. No complications from the treatment were reported, according to the study authors.
Overall, six of the 10 adults and four of the five children had a greater than 50 percent improvement in their eczema symptoms by the end of the trial.
"This study has exciting potential for one day having a treatment for the millions of sufferers of eczema," said Dr. Michele Green, a dermatologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
"What is most exciting is that the 'cure' may be through the skin microbiome itself," said Green, who wasn't involved in the new study.
There was one other interesting finding: Certain chemicals called parabens, commonly found in moisturizers and other skin care products, were found to inhibit the growth of R. mucosa. That suggests that these products might hinder the skin's defenses against eczema, Myles' group said.
The research was funded by the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and published May 3 in the journal JCI Insight.
"If future clinical studies demonstrate that this strategy is effective, we hope our work will lead to development of new, low-cost atopic dermatitis therapies that do not require daily application," Myles, an NIAID researcher, said in an institute news release.
Dr. Anthony Fauci is the agency's director. "Living with atopic dermatitis can be physically and emotionally challenging," he said in the release. "While treatment can help manage the symptoms, currently available therapies can be time-consuming -- requiring multiple daily applications -- and costly.
"New, inexpensive therapies that require less frequent application are needed to expand the options available for atopic dermatitis treatment," Fauci said.