Beneficial Skin Bacteria Protect Against Skin Cancer

Source: University of California – San Diego Health

Summary: In a new study, researchers report a potential new role for some bacteria on the skin: protecting against cancer.

Science continues to peel away layers of the skin microbiome to reveal its protective properties. More than 1 million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the United States each year. More than 95% of these are non-melanoma skin cancer, which is typically caused by overexposure to the sun’s UV rays. Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer that starts in the pigment-producing skin cells, called melanocytes. Researchers from the University of California – San Diego Health identified a strain of Staphylococcus epidermidis, common on the healthy human skin, that exerts a selective ability to inhibit the growth of some cancers. This unique strain of skin bacteria produces a chemical that kills several types of cancer cells but does not appear to be toxic to normal cells. The study findings were published in the journal Science Advances.


S. epidermidis growing on an agar plate. Credit: UC San Diego Health

The team discovered the S. epidermidis strain produces the chemical compound 6-N-hydroxyaminopurine (6-HAP). Mice with S. epidermidis on their skin that did not make 6-HAP had many skin tumors after being exposed to cancer-causing ultraviolet rays (UV), but mice with the S. epidermidis strain producing 6-HAP did not. 6-HAP is a molecule that impairs the creation of DNA, known as DNA synthesis, and prevents the spread of transformed tumor cells as well as the potential to suppress development of UV-induced skin tumors. Mice that received intravenous injections of 6-HAP every 48 hours over a 2 week period experienced no apparent toxic effects, but when transplanted with melanoma cells, their tumor size was suppressed by more than 50% compared to controls.

Prof. Richard Gallo said, “There is increasing evidence that the skin microbiome is an important element of human health. In fact, we previously reported that some bacteria on our skin produce antimicrobial peptides that defend against pathogenic bacteria such as, Staph aureus.”

More Information: T. Nakatsuji et al, “A commensal strain of Staphylococcus epidermidis protects against skin neoplasia”, Science Advances (2017).

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