Researchers at the university of Antwerp have uncovered an effective tool in the battle against every teenager’s nightmare – acne.
The breakthrough by microbiology professor Sarah Lebeer comes in the form of probiotics – a type of micro-organism usually found in foodstuffs, and first discovered in yogurt in Bulgaria in 1905. Since then, organisms of this type have been the subject of many outlandish claims, most of which are not backed by science. Many such claims have been dismissed by the European Food Safety Authority.
Lactic acid, one of the main constituents of probiotics, is commonly used in natural fermentation of food products, so it has been around for a very long time, in bread, kimchi and sauerkraut, soy products, yogurt and kefir.
However the association of probiotics with health dates back only to the introduction of manufactured products meant to make up for the lack of more naturally-fermented historical goods in the modern diet.
"According to the scientific definition, 'probiotics' is a collective term for all good bacteria that have a health effect if you administer them in a sufficient amount," she told the VRT programme Laat.
The Antwerp team under Prof. Lebeer, worked together with the biochemical company YUN based in Niel, to the south of Antwerp.
The idea to use a probiotic was a stroke of serendipity, she told the programme.
"We first looked at which bacteria occur on the skin and which are 'good' bacteria. Then we selected lactobacilli, among other things. These could stop the unwanted acne bacteria from growing and they reduced the inflammation."
Lactobacilli are precisely those found in the above foods.
The result was convincing, and more effective than current treatments including antibiotics and the contraceptive pill – both of which have non-negligible side-effects of their own.
“Standard acne treatments often have a lot of side effects,” she said. "But probiotics are safe bacteria. We also checked that they are gentle on the skin and they can't develop resistance like antibiotics."
One problem associated with the development of the treatment was the use of live bacteria with skin-cream.
"They [the bacteria] were very important in developing the skin cream," she said. "Because probiotics are live bacteria, and getting live bacteria in a skin cream is easier said than done."
The researchers turned to microcapsules.
"The live probiotics are there in a kind of hibernation, so that they have a longer shelf life and so that the cream does not go bad or smell bad. You have to spread those globules on your skin, then the bacteria come out of hibernation and they start to become active on your skin."
Now that the team has shown that good bacteria can be contained not only in pill form, but also as a skin cream, the search for other possibilities will continue.
"In my research lab we are currently working on a nasal spray against sinusitis, Prof Lebeer said. “But also on vaginal applications, for example, to improve female health."