Skip to main content
Move the World.
Spraying Bacteria to Treat Eczema
A scientist demonstrates application of the experimental therapy to the inner elbow. For demonstration purposes, the bacteria solution has been replaced with purple dye. Credit: NIAID

Your skin (like all your organs) is covered with a flourishing ecosystem of bacteria, called the microbiome. These microbes play a vital but underappreciated role in regulating your health and immune system all over your body, and a new experiment suggests that altering skin microbiome could be the key to chronic eczema. The clinical results show that applying live, naturally occurring bacteria from healthy people's skin can hugely reduce the severity of the disease, even after the treatments stop. If the healthy bacteria can be made to flourish on their own, it's possible the treatment could even become self-sustaining.

Microbiome 101: Something like half of the cells in your body aren't "yours"—they don't contain your DNA, and they aren't human. Some are nasty pathogens but the vast majority are friendly, symbiotic bacteria that have evolved to work with our cells to keep all of "us" healthy. Our natural gut microbes help us digest food and absorb nutrients, among other things; strong antibiotics sometimes cause diarrhea because they attack the good gut bacteria along with the infection. Microbiomes are also thought to help calibrate our immune systems to recognize the bad guys and avoid attacking innocent microbial bystanders or our own cells.

Eczema Is the Worst: Sometimes, this system gets out of whack. Either the right mix of bacteria is out of balance, or a bad strain of a bacteria takes over and crowds out the good ones. Doctors at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) think this could explain what's going on with a common type of eczema called atopic dermatitis. This condition afflicts millions of adults and children in the United States, and the causes are diverse. Genes, allergies, and environmental irritants have all been implicated. But scientists noticed that people with the disease have an unusually large amount of Staphylococcus aureus on their skin, a common bacterium that causes infections and inflammation that makes skin red, swollen, and itchy. They theorized that an imbalanced microbiome could cause a surplus of bad bacteria and a shortage of the good bacteria that keep skin hydrated and healthy.

We aim to alter the skin microbiome in a
way that will relieve symptoms and free
people from the burden of constant
treatment.

Dr. Ian MylesAssistant Clinical Investigator, NIAID

The Treatment: Mouse experiments suggested that increasing a naturally occurring skin bacteria called Roseomonas mucosa could alleviate the symptoms of the disease, like dryness, itching, rashes, and infections. The bacteria only helped if the R. mucosa strain was taken from healthy people's microbiome, while the same bacteria from eczema sufferers actually made the condition worse. Now, human trials are showing that cultures of R. mucosa can significantly reduce the severity of the disease, just by spraying a solution of bacteria on the skin. The study was small (just ten adults and five children) but the effects were large. A majority of participants reported a better than 50% improvement in their condition. Several patients reported needing fewer steroids even after the trial ended, and there were no reported side effects.

How Does It Work? Skin tests on the children showed that the therapy seems to cut down the population of S. aureus on the treated skin, implying good bacteria might crowd out the bad. Scientists also found that the different strains of R. mucosa produced different chemicals that either irritated skin cells or helped them maintain a healthy barrier. Larger placebo-controlled trials are needed, but the hope is that by rebalancing the living ecosystem on the surface of the skin, doctors could permanently improve patients' conditions, reducing the need for other expensive, ongoing treatments.

Up Next

Computer Science
Crowdsourcing the Seed for Coronavirus Antiviral Medications
antiviral medications
Computer Science
Crowdsourcing the Seed for Coronavirus Antiviral Medications
Foldit players are solving a protein structure puzzle that could help kickstart coronavirus antiviral medications.

Foldit players are solving a protein structure puzzle that could help kickstart coronavirus antiviral medications.

Public Health
Experts Unveil “Breakthrough” Map of Key Coronavirus Protein
Experts Unveil “Breakthrough” Map of Key Coronavirus Protein
Public Health
Experts Unveil “Breakthrough” Map of Key Coronavirus Protein
Scientists have created the first atomic-scale 3D map of 2019-nCoV’s spike protein, the part of the coronavirus that infiltrates human cells.

Scientists have created the first atomic-scale 3D map of 2019-nCoV’s spike protein, the part of the coronavirus that infiltrates human cells.

Women Leaders
Female Scientists Were Written out of History Books. Margaret Rossiter Changed That.
Female Scientists Were Written out of History Books. Margaret Rossiter Changed That.
Women Leaders
Female Scientists Were Written out of History Books. Margaret Rossiter Changed That.
Margaret Rossiter has made it her lifework to spotlight female scientists who were written out of history books through systematic censorship. Read our Q&A with this groundbreaking historian.

Margaret Rossiter has made it her lifework to spotlight female scientists who were written out of history books through systematic censorship. Read our Q&A with this groundbreaking historian.

Future of Food
What’s Not to Love About Lab Grown Meat?
Inside the World of Gourmet Lab Meat
Watch Now
Future of Food
What’s Not to Love About Lab Grown Meat?
A future of eating meat without ethical or environmental implications is more real than ever before. But will people eat it food grown in a lab?
Watch Now

A future of eating meat without ethical or environmental implications is more real than ever before. While plant-based alternatives are growing in popularity, the real black horse with game-changing potential seems to be actual meat… grown in science labs. The question at this point is not whether this approach is viable or scalable, but simply: will people want to eat it?

The "Search Angel" Volunteers Reunite Birth Families
The
Watch Now
The "Search Angel" Volunteers Reunite Birth Families
For some, not knowing their biological family can feel like a part of them is missing. The Search Squad is helping them for free.
Watch Now

These people are meeting biological relatives for the first time, thanks to a group of volunteers. The Search Squad group on Facebook has around 100 volunteer “search angels” who scour birth records and websites to find the birth relatives of adoptees. Many people who were adopted as children would like to meet their birth relatives, but it can often be an extremely expensive and time-consuming process. Search Squad, on...

Why Researchers Built a Robot Snake
Why Researchers Built a Robot Snake
Watch Now
Why Researchers Built a Robot Snake
Believe it or not, there's a good reason this robot snake exists
Watch Now

When building robots, scientists often struggle to perfect the robot's movements. They turn to the natural world in order to solve this problem, finding inspiration from animals such as spiders, dogs, and even humans. However, studies show that even though we live in a world that is largely built for humans, robots that appear to be too "human-like" make people uneasy. Thus, researchers at Carnegie Melon developed a...

Coded
Erasing Your DNA
Erasing Your DNA
Watch Now
Coded
Erasing Your DNA
Is a spray that can mask your DNA the frontier of personal privacy or a tool for criminals?
Watch Now

There is an incredible amount of data in your DNA. Heather Dewey-Hagborg wants to make sure you have control over that data. She developed a spray that masks your DNA wherever it’s left. Is it a new frontier in personal privacy or a handy tool for criminals?

This Week in Ideas: Using Drones for Medicine, Fighting Zika, Re-Imagining Passwords
This Week in Ideas: Using Drones for Medicine, Fighting Zika, Re-Imagining Passwords
This Week in Ideas: Using Drones for Medicine, Fighting Zika, Re-Imagining Passwords
Reimagining how we get medicine to people, using genetically modified mosquitoes to fight Zika, and selfies as...
By Mike Riggs

Reimagining how we get medicine to people, using genetically modified mosquitoes to fight Zika, and selfies as passwords. These are the stories that got us talking.