Worlds We Carry: The Microbiome Universe Right Under Your Nose
The surface of our skin is host to elaborate colonies of microscopic organisms. Most of them are friendly. Some are absolutely essential. What can we learn from these living, wiggling ecosystems? And can dermatologists use them for good?
Imagine a small, quiet town. There are the locals — working, eating, settling in. They found their home and adapted to it. Some are builders, some are healers, some serve, and others are...less understood.
Then there are the travelers. Most of them are harmless, but some are looking for trouble.
The world of microbes on the surface of human skin is as diverse as any community. Over 1,000 species of microorganisms make up the skin microbiota. They include various types of bacteria, fungi, and viruses.
As a first line of immune defense, our skin comes into direct contact with foreign pathogens like infectious viruses or harmful bacteria by the thousands, every day. But the local microbes — those that have evolved to live in harmony with our bodies — help protect us.
Scientists at Bayer are finding ways to redirect those natural healing properties to treat the symptoms of eczema, which affects 15-20% of children and 1-3% of adults worldwide.
Science has identified multiple causes leading to eczema. Here’s what we know:
Healthy human bodies produce a protein called filaggrin, among others, which helps build a protective barrier on our skin. People suffering from eczema don’t produce enough filaggrin. Without this protection, skin loses moisture and is more vulnerable to harmful bacteria and viruses, which can result in red, itchy, scaly patches of skin. This genetic condition, combined with exposure to adverse environmental factors like pollution and a microbial imbalance, starts a vicious cycle that leads to eczema flare-ups.
Itchy, uncomfortable skin is not only dermatologically unhealthy, it can also affect our mental well-being.
Dr. Holger Lenz, Emerging Science & Innovation Director of Dermatology at Bayer, looks for exciting frontiers in dermatological science like light therapy, digital and personalized health solutions, and beneficial microbes. He believes the right microbes can be a solution to treating the symptoms of eczema.
He works closely with Bayer’s External Innovation & Partnering team on collaborations between Bayer and external partners in dermatology. One of those collaborations is with Azitra, a biotech company that studies and cultivates medically beneficial bacteria.
A recent survey study found that over one-third of eczema sufferers reported trouble sleeping.
Azitra has identified certain strains of one species of bacteria that Dr. Lenz is particularly excited about — Staphylococcus epidermidis — which makes our skin more resilient.
Dr. Lenz says certain strains of this bacteria with the right properties, “can fight pathogens like Staphylococcus aureus. This prevents flare-ups and helps the skin barrier stay strong and healthy.”
This bacteria is prevalent on the skin of healthy adults, but how do we put its natural, living protection to use for the benefit of eczema patients?
Dr. Lenz is focused on bringing emerging innovations into Bayer, and once they arrive, Stefanie Tang, Ph.D., Category R&D Director Medicated Skincare, makes them work for a broad population.
More specifically, when it comes to utilizing Staphylococcus epidermidis for the sake of eczema sufferers, Dr. Tang drives the development of salves that maintain the bacteria’s viability, create a more pleasant experience for patients.
She sees her work as giving people an additional tool in the toolbox when managing eczema.
“Eczema impacts millions of lives a year. And many of them are children. These solutions can bring natural relief. That's something I'm really proud of.” - Stefanie Tang, Ph.D., Category R&D Director Medicated Skincare at Bayer.
Just Scratching the Surface: Exploring Beneficial Skin Microbes
Understanding the skin microbiome could provide more than natural eczema treatments. Studies have suggested skin microbes could also be used to fight acne and rosacea. Bayer’s partnership with Azitra is aimed at finding where the potential lies.
The world of microbes is a world we carry with us every day. They’re in our environment, they’re in our gut, and they’re on our skin. With the tools of modern science, we can zoom in, explore the microbiome universe, and use what we find to improve lives and enable better health. Since this science is still emerging, no one knows what we’ll uncover next. The next great discovery could be right under our noses. Literally.