Updated 04 July 2014

Immune system regulates skin organisms

Your immune system influences the types of microorganisms that live on your skin and affect your risk for disease.


Your immune system influences the types of microorganisms that live on your skin and affect your risk for disease, according to a new study.

A person's skin contains millions of beneficial and potentially disease-causing microbes. Previous research has shown that these microbes influence the immune system but it wasn't known if the reverse was true.

The new study, published online in the journal Genome Research, sought to answer that question.

The researchers looked at patients with rare genetic defects that cause reduced immune function. All of them also had an eczema-like skin condition. Samples taken from the patients' skin showed that they had types of bacteria and fungi on their skin that were not found on healthy people.

This suggests that the immune system does influence the types of microbes that live on the skin, study co-senior author Heidi Kong, of the US National Cancer Institute, said in a journal news release.

Significant differences

She and her colleagues also found that the patients and healthy people had significant differences in the number of different types of microbes present at specific skin sites that are vulnerable to disease. For example, the skin at the elbow crease on patients had fewer types of microbes than the same location on healthy people, while the skin behind the ear on patients had more types of microbes.

This suggests that an imbalance in microbial diversity at a given site on the skin may contribute to disease risk, according to the study authors.

They also found that that the patients tended to have much more similar microbial communities across their entire skin surface, instead of the distinct communities found on healthy people. This suggests that correcting the diversity of microbes on the skin, not just targeting disease-causing types may help in the treatment of disease, the researchers said.

They added that while this study looked at people with rare genetic disorders, this research may prove useful for patients with temporary decreases in immune function such as those with cancer and transplant recipients by guiding the use of antibiotics routinely given to these patients.

More information

The US National Institutes of Health has more about microbes and the human body.

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Skin expert

Dr Suretha Kannenberg holds a degree in Medicine and a Masters in Dermatology from the University of Stellenbosch. She is employed as a consultant dermatologist by Stellenbosch University and Tygerberg Academic Hospital, where she is involved in clinical duties and the training of medical students and dermatology residents. Her areas of interest and research include vitiligo, eczema and acne. She also performs limited private practice work in the Northern suburbs of Cape Town in general and cosmetic dermatology.

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