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It often takes time for an ailment to show its true colours, and by the time it rears its ugly head, there’s no “preventative” way to handle it. But our largest organ, our skin, is really good at telling us that something’s up. We can both feel and see it in a way that we simply cannot with other parts of the body.

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But one thing we can’t see so easily on our skin are crawling bacteria, fungi, viruses, and even tiny mites. This thought alone might be enough to make you run to the shower, but such skin-dwelling organisms work to produce chemicals to kill harmful bacteria to keep us healthy.

Though skin has a mixture of healthy and harmful bacteria, the ratio can sometimes be imbalanced, causing conditions like atopic dermatitis (AD) – the most common form of eczema, which creates inflamed and irritated skin.

“People with this type of eczema, for some reason that’s not quite known yet, have a lot of bacteria on the skin but it’s the wrong type of bacteria,” dermatologist Richard Gallo from UC San Diego explained. “They’re not producing the antimicrobials they need.”

Though our bodies can produce some antimicrobial chemicals on their own, scientists from the University of California-San Diego, the University of California-Berkeley, and the University of Rochester found that some bacteria on our skin are better at it.

For their work, Gallo and his team looked at skin culture swabs taken from 30 healthy people and 49 subjects with AD. They discovered, after screening thousands of colonies of bacteria, that healthy people’s skin is rich in two bacterial species — Staphylococcus hominis and Staphylococcus epidermis — both capable of fighting off a harmful kind of bacterium called Staphylococcus aureus, which is the bacterium that can cause staph infections via a cut or scrape.

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The team then tested personalized lotions on five patients with eczema. It is known that people with this condition have less diverse microbial communities on their skin, resulting in the rashes. It also puts them at greater risk of infections. Though each of the five patients had an overload of S. aureus, they all had different colonies of various other bacteria, so the researchers swabbed each of their skin microbiomes and came up with specialized antimicrobial lotions for each of them.

The researchers gave each patient the custom lotion to put on one arm, and regular lotion to put on the other. The results revealed that, after one day without washing, the arms treated with the custom lotion showed a significant reduction in staph populations, whereas the regular lotion had no effect.

“We now have a rational therapeutic approach for atopic dermatitis by using bacterial transplant technology,” Gallo said. “It appears that people with this disorder will need to have it reapplied because their body does not naturally promote the growth of these organisms. The good thing is this is easy to do because it’s just a cream.”

The researchers hope that the antimicrobial lotions will eventually be able to be used in place of antibiotics for staph infections, and perhaps even cure eczema.

“It’s a big step towards using microbial therapies to treat skin disease,” immunologist Shruti Naik from Rockerfeller University, who wasn’t involved with the study, said. “It will be interesting to take it a step further, and test if the beneficial microbes can dampen or cure eczema.”


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