Engineered skin bacteria fight acne by producing common drug
Far from just embarrassing adolescents, acne is an annoying part of pretty much everyone’s lives, and in some cases can get serious. Now, scientists have demonstrated an intriguing new way to fight it, by engineering bacteria that live on the skin to produce proteins found in acne drugs.
Acne starts when hair follicles become clogged with dead skin cells and oil, and can become inflamed, resulting in the pimples, bumps and whiteheads we’re all too familiar with. When we’re not squeezing and popping them, we’re treating the condition with drugs that kill oil-producing cells, or antibiotics that target bacteria in the follicles. More experimental recent studies include vaccines, probiotics or microneedle patches that attack the bugs responsible.
But what if we could get those bacteria working for us? For the new study, scientists at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) in Spain investigated how to engineer skin-dwelling bacteria to produce the active ingredients in acne medications. Their target was Cutibacterium acnes, the most common species of bacteria found on our skin and one that lives deep in our hair follicles.
Overproduction of an oil called sebum is a common trigger for acne, and many acne drugs like isotretinoin work by killing off the cells that produce it. In this case, the C. acnes was engineered to produce a protein called NGAL, which mediates naturally occurring isotretinoin.
The team tested the edited bacteria in lab-grown cultures of human skin cells, and found that it was able to produce and secrete NGAL, reducing sebum production. In tests in mice, the bacteria were also able to live and work, although the effects on acne can’t be tested this way since mouse skin is so different to ours.
This technique could not only help clear up acne but reduce dependence on antibiotics, which are increasingly causing resistance in bacteria. While more work needs to be done to get this ready for human testing, including first trying it on 3D skin models, the researchers say it could also be adapted to treat other skin conditions. First on the list is atopic dermatitis.
“We have developed a technology platform that opens the door to editing any bacteria to treat multiple diseases,” said Marc Güell, lead researcher on the study. "We are now focused in using C. acnes to treat acne but we can deliver genetic circuits to create smart microbes for applications related to skin sensing, or immune modulation.
The research was published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.