Assassin virus could treat acne

A model of a “bacteriophage,” a virus that attacks bacteria.

It’s so common, it’s almost a universal experience of growing up.

Acne is often the bane of a teenager’s existence, leading an already-unsure and uncomfortable kid to feel even less confident.

Luckily for most kids, and plenty of adults, over-the-counter treatments full of salicylic acid and peroxide will clear up the problem. But for many others, medical intervention is needed.

That’s because acne is caused by bacteria that lives on your skin, so no amount of face-washing or dietary changes will make it go away. Some people use doctor-prescribed antibiotics that kill the bacteria, but now those are becoming less effective.

Dermatologists started to notice that antibacterial treatments aren’t helping their patients as much as they used to. That led to research that found that the bacteria that causes acne, namely Propionibacterium acnes, are mutating to become resistant to antibiotics.

There are stronger topical treatments like retinoids that physically open up pores and prevent oil and dead skin from clogging and causing inflammation, but these only work on a case-by-case basis. Even more potent is Accutane, a pill that can have side effects of depression and birth defects. Some light and laser treatments have been found to help, but they’re expensive and aren’t usually covered by insurance.

So that’s it for the chemical approach, but what about a boots-on-the-ground method?

There are a number of viruses that exist naturally on your skin along with P. acnes called bacteriophages, which means they only infect bacteria cells. They latch on to a bacteria cell and insert their own packets of RNA and DNA, which change how the cell operates. Now, a team of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are working on genetically re-programming those viruses to kill off P. acnes by inserting DNA that leads the cell to break apart.

There’s still more work to be done, but researchers are hoping to be able to test the genetically-engineered bacteriophages on people soon.

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