PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2012, 12:42pm

Hasta la vista, pimples. Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Pittsburgh have discovered a virus family that naturally preys on pimple-causing bacteria. Harnessing this virus could offer a safe and effective weapon against the physical and emotional scars of severe acne, say the researchers.

The family of viruses, called
Propionibacterium acnes phages, live on human skin but are harmless to humans. They infect and kill the
Propionibacterium acnes bacteria, which thrive in pores. When the bacteria aggravate the immune system, they cause swollen, red bumps associated with acne.

Using over-the-counter pore cleansing strips from the chemist, the researchers lifted the acne bacteria and the
P. acnes viruses from the noses of both pimply and clear-skinned volunteers. Sequencing the microbes' genomes, the scientists discovered the viruses possess multiple features - such as small size, limited diversity and the broad ability to kill their hosts.

"The lack of genetic diversity among the phages that attack the acne bacterium implies that viral-based strategies may help control this distressing skin disorder," says co-author Graham Hatfull, biological sciences professor at the University of Pittsburgh. The findings were published last week in the American Society for Microbiology's journal

Most effective treatments work by reducing the number of
P. acnes bacteria on the skin. But the arsenal of anti-acne weapons has not expanded in decades, say the scientists. "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," says study co-author Dr Jenny Kim, director of the UCLA Clinic for Acne, Rosacea and Aesthetics.

The research team plans to isolate the active protein from the
P. acnes virus and test whether it is as effective as the whole virus in killing acne bacteria. In the meantime, test your knowledge of acne with this quiz from the Yale Medical Group at the Yale University School of Medicine.

1. Acne is a disease that affects which of these?

a. epidermis

b. endodermis

c. hair follicles

2. Which of these factors causes acne?

a. poor hygiene

b. poor diet

c. dirty skin

3. Some cosmetics and toiletries aggravate acne. What kind of cosmetic is least likely to do so?

a. non-comedogenic (or oil-free)

b. lip products with moisturisers

c. hair gel products

4. What percentage of adults suffers from acne?

a. 20 per cent

b. 30 per cent

c. 40 per cent

Answers: 1. c; 2. none (likely due to genes, hormones or medication); 3. a; 4. a