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Researchers in the U.S. are hoping to use a virus that targets bacteria to find a cure for acne. (iStock)

A team of U.S. scientists has discovered a potential cure for pimples, with the help of a virus that lives on the surface of the skin.

"Acne affects millions of people, yet we have few treatments that are both safe and effective," says Dr. Robert Modlin of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), lead researcher of the study that appears in mBio, the online journal of the American Society for Microbiology.

Pimples form when hair follicles become blocked with an oil known as sebum. A bacteria found on the skin called Propionibacterium acnes becomes trapped in the blocked follicle, aggravating the immune system. This results in the formation of swollen, red bumps — also known as acne.

"Harnessing a virus that naturally preys on the bacteria that causes pimples could offer a promising new tool against the physical and emotional scars of severe acne," says Modlin.

Virus targets acne bacteria

The team of scientists focused on P. acnes and a virus, or phage, that lives on the surface of the skin. The virus is harmless to humans, but is programmed to infect and kill the P. acnes bacteria.

"We know that sex hormones, facial oil and the immune system play a role in causing acne, however, a lot of research implicates P. acnes as an important trigger," says lead author Laura Marinelli of UCLA. "Sometimes they set off an inflammatory response that contributes to the development of acne."

The researchers collected samples of both the bacteria and virus from the noses of volunteers with and without acne. They then sequenced the genomes of both, and found the virus to be small with very little genetic diversity.

Study co-author, Graham Hatfull of the University of Pittsburgh, says the lack of genetic diversity means the virus is unlikely to target other species of 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," he says.

Currently, dermatologists use a range of treatments such as benzoyl peroxide and antibiotics to reduce the impact of acne. However, the long-term use of antibiotics is limited because some acne strains have developed resistance.

The researchers now plan to isolate the active protein from the virus to test whether it is as effective as the whole virus in killing acne bacteria.