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Is There Something Good About Acne Bacteria?

By Dr. Jaggi Rao, MD, FRCPC, Double board-certified dermatologist

None of us considers acne bacteria to be “friendly” bacteria. But scientists at the Graduate School of Medicine at Mie University in Japan report that they have been able to stop the growth of melanoma tumors with an injection of acne bacteria.

Good Acne Bacteria
Acne bacteria may actually be useful in fighting melanoma tumors!

The Challenge Of Treating Melanoma

In the United States, Israel, and Australia, more people than not develop some form of skin cancer at some time during their lives. Most skin cancers are non-malignant, that is, they do not break out of the original tumor and spread throughout the body.

Melanoma, however, can break though the lower layers of the skin and spread to the lungs and lymph nodes. Once melanoma ulcerates the skin and spreads to other parts of the body, it is extremely difficult to treat, and only about 30% of patients can be expected to live 5 years or more.

Once considered a very rare form of cancer, melanoma is being diagnosed with increasing frequency each and every year. While whites who have fair skin get melanoma 20 times as often as people with other skin colors, anyone of any race can develop melanoma. The disease usually strikes before the age of 55.

Acne Bacteria And Melanoma

Japanese scientists came up with the idea of injecting melanoma tumors with the bacteria that cause acne, Propionibacterium acnes, by taking a careful look at the role acne bacteria play in acne inflammation. The redness, swelling, itching, oozing, and pain of acne are not actually caused by the acne bacteria themselves. Acne bacteria release chemicals called chemotactins that redirect the immune system away from themselves and into surrounding human tissue. The immune system “aims” at the bacteria but “hits” the skin.

There’s actually a long history of using immunizations to treat melanoma. Over a hundred years ago, doctors treated melanoma with what were known as Coley toxins. In the 1990’s, cancer researchers developed melanoma vaccines that activate the immune system to fight the cancer. These vaccines are the reason melanoma used to be fatal within 5 years for 95% of patients and melanoma is now fatal within 5 years for just about 70% of patients.

The great value of an acne bacteria vaccine, the Japanese researchers hoped, would be the ability to direct the immune system’s attention directly on the tumor, rather than creating antibodies spread throughout the body via the bloodstream.

Dramatic Results From An Acne Bacteria Vaccine

To test the treatment, the scientists introduced tiny amounts of melanoma tissue into the abdominal cavities of laboratory mice. The cancer cells multiplied very quickly and formed visible tumors. Then the scientists injected live acne bacteria into the tumors to see if they would trigger an immune reaction.

When the mouse’s immune system encountered the acne bacteria, it sent out dendritic cells to attack them. These are white blood cells that look a little like a branching tree, sending out “arms” to surround and reel in individual bacteria that the white blood cell literally eats.

In the process of consuming the bacteria, these white blood cells also released chemicals that infiltrated the melanoma tumors. The cells began attacking the tumors as if they were the healthy skin infected with acne. Just as the immune system destroys a tiny patch of healthy skin to make a pimple, the mice’s immune systems attacked the melanoma tumors.

The results were dramatic. Without any radiation or chemotherapy or any other acne treatment, tumors shrank by 70 to 99%. The immune system itself was able to destroy the tumors without any outside help once it was trained by the acne bacteria.

Acne Isn’t Entirely Bad After All

A study conducted in Spain found that immigrants to Spain from Latin America were more likely to have acne and less likely to have melanoma. The results may not hold for other ethnic groups and they don’t show causality, that is, it is not possible to conclude causality from this kind of study, whether acne causes resistance to melanoma. But it’s definitely true that acne bacteria do a lot more on the skin than just cause pimples.

In small numbers, acne bacteria could actually help the skin recover from stress. When the skin becomes “excited,” it produces a hormone called corticotrophin releasing factor. This is the same hormone that makes the adrenal glands make the stress hormone cortisol. In the skin, corticotrophin releasing factor encourages the skin to make more sebum. This oily substance lubricates the skin so it is less likely to be cut or torn and more likely to stretch and spring back.

At some point, however, excess sebum has to be removed from the skin. Acne bacteria feed on sebum and even release anti-inflammatory essential fatty acids as a byproduct. A small number of acne bacteria in your pores is a good thing for your skin.

It’s only when the skin grows so fast that pores close up that both sebum and bacteria can accumulate and precipitate the immune reactions we know as acne. But as long as acne bacteria exist in small numbers, they actually protect the skin. Antibiotic-resistant acne bacteria are the exception to this rule.

The Vitamin D Conundrum

The one thing everyone who is at elevated risk for melanoma (it’s especially prevalent in people who have fair skin, blue eyes, and red hair) knows is that it is necessary to cover up when going out in the sun to avoid the inflammatory changes in the skin that encourage the growth of melanoma. This is also the advice you’ll get if you use any of dozens of acne medications that can leave discoloration behind after acne has healed.

Covering up your skin to prevent melanoma and to heal acne without spots left behind, however, reduces your skin’s opportunities to make vitamin D. If you are going to use sunscreen to protect your face from sun on account of either condition, make sure you take supplemental vitamin D, preferably 1,000 IU up to 5,000 IU per day, every day, especially in winter.

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Michaela Reply

I was wondering if you had the links to the research you mentioned in this article about the melanoma as I doing a project for my seminar.

January 15, 2016 at 6:42 pm Reply

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