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Zapping Zits Goes Viral

New Approach Targets Acne-Causing Germs With Technology Based on Viruses That Kill Bacteria

By IBBR Communications Staff

Young man purchasing skin product

Photo by iStock

Acne medications have long relied on either drying agents or antibiotics to work, but a Department of Veterinary Medicine researcher is taking a new approach to fighting pimples that uses enzymes derived from viruses that infect and kill bacteria.

Blemishes, blackheads, zits or pimples—whatever you want to call them, they’re the enemy in a war that for decades has relied on topical treatments containing drying agents and antibiotics, despite a host of side effects ranging from skin irritation to the promotion of antibiotic resistance.

But now, a University of Maryland researcher and fellow at the Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research (IBBR) is working to bypass traditional over-the-counter (OTC) ointments and potentially problematic prescription antibiotic creams. Veterinary medicine Professor Daniel Nelson, an expert in the biology of bacteriophage, is deploying enzymes derived from these viruses that infect and kill bacteria to fight the Cutibacterium acnes bacteria, which causes acne in more than 80% of adolescents and an increasing number of adults.

Nelson previously developed phage-derived enzymes to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and is now applying his technology platform to a new foe. Here’s how it works: Phage produce enzymes (proteins) called endolysins that cleave the protective cell wall of their bacterial hosts. Nelson has shown that if these endolysins are purified, they can puncture the cell wall and kill bacteria in seconds upon contact, making them a particularly attractive platform for topical applications.

“Endolysins represent an exciting new technology with the potential to offer a potent and safe treatment for acne, with minimal side effects and low risk of inducing drug resistance,” said Nelson.

IBBR recently received a nine-month, $115,000 Technology Assessment award from the Maryland Innovation Initiative (MII), as part of the Innovation Commercialization Program at TEDCO, to support the work Nelson is leading.

The MII funding will support Nelson’s work to characterize C. acnes-specific endolysins in the laboratory, develop and test delivery formulas, and begin to assess safety and efficacy in various model systems. The goal is to develop the first direct-lytic agent—that is, one capable of breaking down a cell wall—against C. acnes as a new, easy-to-use topical treatment.    

“Pursuing translational research that brings innovative science to the market is an important part of IBBR’s mission,” said IBBR Director Tom Fuerst. “The MII program provides critical funding that helps bridge the gap between basic research funding and commercialization.”

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