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Issue 471, 22 October 2001

Researchers hope new theory
will hit the spot

A vaccination against acne might become a reality, according to new theory now being tested by researchers at Leeds. Microbiologists and immunologists are studying a bacterium linked to acne, which they believe may cause an inflammatory immune response in acne sufferers, creating the lesions which characterise the condition.

Earlier research by Dr Anne Eady at Leeds strengthened the connection between Propionibacterium acnes and the disease, when resistant bacteria were found on the skin of patients not responding to antibiotic treatment. Microbiologists Dr Mark Farrar and Professor Keith Holland believe that certain proteins in the bacteria – called heat shock proteins – are triggering the immune system of acne sufferers, causing inflammation, and then, in a case of mistaken identity, the immune system attacks healthy cells as well.

Spot on - microbiologist Dr Mark Farrar (left)

Heat shock proteins (HSPs) are found in all organisms, and play an essential role when cells are under stress. Some of the sequences of amino acids which make up P. acnes HSPs are smiliar to those found in human HSPs.

Dr Farrar said: "In certain follicles, P. acnes may be under stress, through fluctuation in nutrient or pH levels, possibly due to changes that occur at puberty when most people start to suffer from the condition. Under stress, the bacteria may produce more HSPs, and HSPs can induce strong immune responses. If the immune system doesnÕt distinguish between human and bacterial proteins, it may attack healthy cells, and so contribute to inflammation."

Dr Farrar plans to test his theory by creating antibodies specific to the P. acnes HSPs, and using these to determine if the proteins are present in acne lesions. In addition, further work will show whether the immune systemÕs T-cells respond to parts of the protein specific to P. acnes or those similar to the human protein. If HSPs are proven to play a role in the condition, it could lead to the introduction of new treatments.

Immunologist Professor Eileen Ingham explains: "Acne is usually treated with antibiotics, but this isnÕt always effective, as bacteria can become resistant. If the HSPs are shown to be the major cause of inflammation, children could be vaccinated before they reach puberty, to help them develop a regulated response to the proteins and reduce the chance of the condition occurring."

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