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updated 9/25/2012 4:19:46 PM ET 2012-09-25T20:19:46

Doctors may soon have a new zit zapper, thanks to the discovery that a harmless virus living on human skin seeks out and kills pimple-causing bacteria.

A paper on this pimple enemy is in the latest issue of the American Society for Microbiology's mBio.

"Acne affects millions of people, yet we have few treatments that are both safe and effective," co-author Robert Modlin was quoted as saying in a press release. "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."

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Modlin is chief of dermatology and professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He and his colleagues investigated two microbes: Propionibacterium acnes, a bacterium thriving in our pores that can trigger acne; and P. acnes phages, a family of viruses that live on human skin. They seem to hate zits but nothing else, rendering them harmless to people.

P. acnes is the bane of many teenagers and other acne victims. When this bacteria aggravates the immune system, it causes the swollen, red bumps associated with acne.

"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," explained co-author Laura Marinelli, a UCLA postdoctoral researcher in Modlin's laboratory. "Sometimes they set off an inflammatory response that contributes to the development of acne."

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For the study, she and her colleagues lifted acne bacteria and the P. acnes viruses from the noses of both pimply and clear-skinned volunteers. After studying the material, they discovered that the small size, limited diversity and killing capabilities of the viruses make them good candidates for a new anti-acne therapy.

"Our findings provide valuable insights into acne and the bacterium that causes it," co-author Graham Hatfull said. "The lack of genetic diversity among the phages (a virus parasitic in bacteria) that attack the acne bacterium implies that viral-based strategies may help control this distressing skin disorder."

"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," added Marinelli. "This trait suggests that they offer strong potential for targeted therapeutic use."

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That's great news for acne sufferers (a huge group that includes about 90 percent of all Americans at some point in their life) since many current acne treatments come with side effects.

"Antibiotics such as tetracycline are so widely used that many acne strains have developed resistance, and drugs like Accutane, while effective, can produce risky side effects, limiting their use," explained coauthor Dr. Jenny Kim, director of the UCLA Clinic for Acne, Rosacea and Aesthetics. "Acne can dramatically disfigure people and undermine their self-esteem, especially in teens. We can change patients' lives with treatment. It's time we identified a new way to safely treat the common disorder."

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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