For many people, high school is marked by socially recognized rites of passage such as proms, awkward first dates, and the stress of dramatic hormonal changes. For many, acne in particular is a major source of discomfort, self-consciousness, and even embarrassment. But now, acne treatment could be entering a new phase through synthetic biology innovation.
It’s estimated that 85% of teens and young adults globally suffer from acne flare-ups. There are a number of myths as to what causes this condition. Chocolate, greasy food, cosmetics, and even skin hygiene are often blamed for acne outbreaks. The truth is that acne is caused by dead skin cells and excess protective skin oil (sebum) clogging the hair follicles. Excess sebum is typically caused by hormonal changes, particularly during puberty. Certain medications, stress, and possibly carbohydrate-rich food can also trigger acne.
When hair follicles are blocked, it can also lead to a bacterial infection in the follicle. The body’s normal immune response to infection is inflammation, which, in the case of acne, is generally responsible for the classic acne bumps. Currently, topical creams or oral medications are used to kill these unwanted bacteria. But wiping out the skin bacteria can also have unintended drawbacks.
The skin has its own natural microbiome—the trillion or so microorganisms living on the surface of the skin. Many of these organisms have no effect on the body. But others are important for protecting the skin and boosting the immune system. To preserve the natural skin microbiome, synthetic biologists are using Crispr to create lethal cuts in the genome of harmful specific bacterial genes while leaving the rest of the microbiome intact.
Interest in this novel therapy increased today when Eligo Bioscience announced their new partnership with global healthcare giant, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). Eligo, a microbiome gene therapy company, is developing new diagnostics and therapeutics for microbiome-associated diseases. Through its new agreement with GSK, Eligo will receive upfront payment and new research funding for its pre-clinical acne therapy, Eligobiotics. If the partnership is successful, Eligo will be eligible for up to $224 million in licensing fees.
Founded in 2014, Eligo has branded itself as “the microbiome company.” The company works to develop antimicrobial therapies through genetic engineering. For Eligobiotics, the company is using Crispr to genetically disable the inflammation-inducing gene in otherwise healthy skin bacteria.
Eligo Bioscience’s Crispr-based acne treatment disables harmful bacterial genes that induce acne while leaving the rest of the skin microbiome intact. ELIGO BIOSCIENCE
Crispr is often referred to as genetic scissors. Using a specific guide RNA sequence, a Crispr-associated protein (Cas) arrives at the target bacterial gene and cuts the double-stranded DNA. This DNA break disables the gene that expresses the molecules that trigger the body’s inflammatory response. Unlike many acne treatments, this biotech approach kills only the bacteria that contain this gene. By getting to the genetic root-cause of the condition, the company hopes their topical solution will “shift the paradigm” of acne treatment.
If successful, Eligo’s novel treatment could provide acne relief to millions of people. In a press release, Eligo estimates that 40 to 50 million people in the United States alone are affected by acne. Acne is the number one reason patients seek out dermatologists. Besides uncomfortable or even painful symptoms, persistent acne can also significantly impact patients’ mental health.
In 2017, the acne treatment market was estimated at $4.5 billion but is expected to grow to $7 billion by 2024. Eligo’s platform may be a part of this growing market. The company aims to conduct its first clinical trials later this year. But acne is only one of many microbiome-associated diseases Eligo aims to address. Though the company has not officially announced their next project, the current leading candidate will target a toxigenic gut bacteria. According to the company, its technology could also target drug-resistant genes in microbiome organisms or address other issues with pro-and antibiotic microbiome therapies.
Thank you to Fiona Mischel for additional reporting for this article. I am the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest.