New Cancer Treatment Might Come from Common Skin Bacteria Staphylococcus Epidermidis

A bacteria on your skin may produce a chemical that can protect against skin cancer, scientists at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) reported in Science Advances on Wednesday. The new findings are based on a study done using mice. 

The bacteria, Staphylococcus epidermidis, is found on the skin of about 20 percent of the population, according to Science News. The bacteria can produce a chemical with a long name abbreviated to 6-HAP. If the bacteria name sounds familiar, that may because it is a close relative of Staphylococcus aureuswell known for the infections it causes. 

Bacteria 6-HAP stops cancer from growing by interfering with an enzyme a cell requires to copy its DNA before it divides. That division is how cancer grows. Mice that had 6-HAP injected into them before scientists gave them skin cancer cells wound up with far smaller tumors compared with mice without the injection, The Guardian reported. The mice that had been pretreated with 6-HAP had tumors that were about 60 percent smaller than the ones that hadn’t received the chemical. Even just adding the bacteria to the mice’s skin seemed to help.

“The hope is that applying this could protect people, as well as we have shown it works in mice,” UCSD researcher Dr. Richard Gallo told HealthDay.

However, there’s still a lot more work to be done before this approach might have any impact on people who have or are worried about cancer. Adding bacteria to people’s skin willy-nilly is not a good idea. Another scientist who was not involved in the research told HealthDay that bacteria can mutate. That means any attempt to use antibiotics to alter a person’s skin bacteria could contribute to the already alarming problem of antibiotic resistance.

Just using the chemical itself isn’t currently possible. Bacteria 6-HAP is not currently found in any Food and Drug Administration approved drug, according to the FDA’s database. Clinical trials for new drugs take time—and that assumes that studies in animal models show results without major safety concerns. 

In the meantime, skin cancer prevention is still possible through other ways. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a list of tips on its website, which includes staying in the shade, wearing a hat and wearing sunglasses. And bacteria aren’t the only thing you might want to apply to your skin to prevent skin cancer. Consider sunscreen too.