Do bacteria affect the skin barrier in atopic eczema?

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Certain bacteria occur frequently and foremost on the skin of people with atopic dermatitis, and it is known that this disease seriously compromises the skin’s barrier function. Researchers from the Helmholtz Zentrum München and the Technical University of Munich have now discovered how the two facts become correlated. Their study results are accessible via the ‘Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology’.

Modern Medicine considers atopic dermatitis or atopic eczema as the portal of entry for allergies because sensitization and manifest allergy often develop in consequence to a damaged skin barrier. “Recent studies have shown that the bacterial composition of the skin influences the inflammatory process in atopic dermatitis,” explains Dr. Matthias Reiger. He is co-author of the recently published paper and a member of the research team headed by Professor Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann, MD, Institute Director and Professor for Environmental Medicine at Helmholtz Zentrum München and the Technical University of Munich. “Moreover, the research into the cellular system of the skin barrier led to new findings on the function of specific genes responsible for maintaining a healthy skin.”

In their study, the scientists wanted to find out what possible correlations exist between bacteria and those genes that maintain the skin barrier. To this end, they collected skin samples from healthy subjects and from individuals with atopic dermatitis. In the latter case, they separated the samples depending on whether the skin area was inflamed or not. “From the patient and control samples, we determined the composition of the skin bacteria and identified those genes that were particularly active in affected skin,” explains bioinformatician Professor Avidan Neumann. He was also involved in the research work at the IEM – Chair and Institute of Environmental Medicine, UNIKA-T.

Do bacteria such as S. aureus alter gene activity? 

The analysis showed that the dominant bacterial species on the skin of atopic dermatitis patients are staphylococci. Staphylococcus aureus was particularly common across the different degrees of inflammation in the affected skin. “In some inflamed skin samples, S. aureus actually accounted for up to 99 percent of the total microbial composition,” says Matthias Reiger. “In addition, S. aureus appears to displace other staphylococcal strains,” according to the microbiologist. “The more S. aureus we find, the less likely it becomes that other species are present.”

To analyze gene activity in the samples, the researchers sought help from Switzerland: The cooperation partners at the Swiss Institute for Allergy and Asthma Research (SIAF) from the University of Zurich analyzed the entire transcriptome of the skin samples. To this effect, they noticed that some genes were significantly altered, depending on which bacterial inhabitants lived on the skin. “This effect was particularly pronounced for four genes involved in the maintenance of an intact and stable skin barrier,” recounts Avidan Neumann.

The authors headed by Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann already set up the next project: based on the simple correlations between bacteria and the skin barrier, their functional links become the new objective.


As German Research Center for Environmental Health, Helmholtz Zentrum München pursues the goal of developing personalized medical approaches for the prevention and therapy of major common diseases such as diabetes mellitus, allergies and lung diseases. To achieve this, it investigates the interaction of genetics, environmental factors and lifestyle. The Helmholtz Zentrum München has about 2,300 staff members and is headquartered in Neuherberg in the north of Munich. Helmholtz Zentrum München is a member of the Helmholtz Association, a community of 18 scientific-technical and medical-biological research centers with a total of about 37,000 staff members. 
The Institute of Environmental Medicine (IEM) combines translational research on environment-human interaction – its main emphasis is on allergic diseases – with a modern interdisciplinary academic teaching and with an extensive and integral patient care at the Umweltambulanz (outpatient clinic for environment), Klinikum Augsburg (Augsburg clinic), thus forming an overall concept pointing the way ahead. Together, these three sections follow the common objective of helping to prevent and to treat chronic diseases in a sustainable way.
The Technical University of Munich (TUM) is one of Europe’s leading research universities, with around 550 professors, 41,000 students, and 10,000 academic and non-academic staff. Its focus areas are the engineering sciences, natural sciences, life sciences and medicine, combined with economic and social sciences. TUM acts as an entrepreneurial university that promotes talents and creates value for society. In that it profits from having strong partners in science and industry. It is represented worldwide with the TUM Asia campus in Singapore as well as offices in Beijing, Brussels, Cairo, Mumbai, San Francisco, and São Paulo. Nobel Prize winners and inventors such as Rudolf Diesel, Carl von Linde, and Rudolf Mößbauer have done research at TUM. In 2006 and 2012 it won recognition as a German “Excellence University.” In international rankings, TUM regularly places among the best universities in Germany.

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