Bacteria in a bottle? AOBiome offers ways to stay clean without traditional soap

Chemical engineer David Whitlock says AOBiome’s products help keep him clean -- he says he's used them in place of showering for the last 15 years.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Chemical engineer David Whitlock says AOBiome’s products help keep him clean -- he says he's used them in place of showering for the last 15 years.

The instructions on the bottle are simple enough: Shake before use. Mist twice daily as needed.

But the science behind the $49 spray solution from the Cambridge startup AOBiome can be a little hard to fathom. It uses living bacteria that the company says make your skin clean and fresh.

Around 2000, when MIT-trained engineer David Whitlock hit the scientific conference circuit to explain his theories on how bacteria had kept our pre-soap ancestors clean, most people thought he was nuts. It didn’t help that he cuts a classic zany-professor figure, with thick glasses and white wisps of hair surrounding a shiny pate, or that he says he hasn’t showered in 15 years because the organisms he uses on himself daily are killed by store-bought soaps.

“He was kind of a lovable oddball at these meetings,” said Dennis Stuehr, a professor of molecular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic who met Whitlock at a conference in Japan in 2002. “People would bend over and he would spray it into their scalp.”

But there has been a sea change in scientific understanding of the multitude of bacteria that inhabit the body. And Whitlock’s AO+ Mist, which hit the market last year, has found a small but earnest following among young urban professionals who are experimenting with nontraditional approaches to staying healthy and clean.

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Not that these early adopters need to go to Whitlock’s showerless extreme. On Tuesday, the company will start selling a bacteria-friendly shower gel and a shampoo, giving consumers the option of using its mist without abandoning more conventional ablutions.

Whitlock, 60, says the human skin once played host to bacteria that served as personal groomers, eating through sweat and oils. When we adopted soaps and shampoos, we were clean but the chemicals eviscerated all the good bacteria.

So what?

Whitlock argues that the bacteria feed off urea and ammonia in sweat from the skin, turning them into nitric oxide.

Nitric oxide is a small molecule with a huge role to play in the body. Among its duties: dilating blood vessels to reduce blood pressure and control erections. In 1992, it was Science magazine’s “molecule of the year”; by 1998, the researchers who first demonstrated its effects earned a Nobel prize.

But until Whitlock came along, no one had considered that skin bacteria could be a source of something that could help the body in many ways.

“I didn’t have a biology degree — I wasn’t at an institution that was renowned for its biological research,” Whitlock said, remembering those early years. “And I was proposing something that was completely off the wall.”

Two of AOBiome's 11 full-time employees: Jasmina Aganovic, general  manager of consumer products, and Larry Weiss, chief medical officer. AOBiome now has 11 full-time employees, many who regularly use the AO+ Mist. Pictured: Jasmina Aganovic, general manager of consumer products, and Larry Weiss, chief medical officer.

Researchers now realize microbes are more abundant in the body than human cells themselves.

In 2008, the National Institutes of Health invested $115 million in the Human Microbiome Project. That and other global efforts have revealed that the bacteria work as a trillion nodes in a networked switchboard, modulating digestion, immune responses, and even moods and stress.

And, as if on cue, a research group from New York University this year revealed an inventory of bacteria from an isolated tribe in the Venezuelan Amazon that lives in close contact with the soil and doesn’t practice modern hygiene or use antibiotics. Among the bugs thriving abundantly on their skin are species related to the bacteria Whitlock has been carrying around in his spray bottle.

Now at AOBiome, Whitlock is commercializing the idea that was once just a curiosity.

The company, headquartered at the Cambridge Innovation Center in Kendall Square, says thousands of people have tried AOBiome’s mist since it went on sale a little over a year ago, originally at $99 a bottle. The new shower gel and shampoo will each sell for $15 a bottle.

There’s a newfound appreciation for biological design, said Jasmina Aganovic, the company’s general manager of product. “It’s really challenging existing conventions of what it means to be clean and what it means to be healthy.”

The new branding is a cheeky allusion to a return-to-nature vibe: The company is calling its line Mother Dirt. After all, Whitlock’s bacterial isolates live in the soil.

AOBiome’s new line of Mother Dirt products are challenging customers to “rethink clean.” They including the AO+ Mist containing live bacteria, a bacteria-safe cleanser, and a bacteria-safe shampoo.

AOBiome’s first products are being sold as cosmetics — the company currently makes no health claims. But there are kernels of evidence to support Whitlock’s early controversial ideas that the bacteria have profound and far-reaching effects.

After AOBiome’s user community reported seeing skin conditions like eczema and acne clear up after using the bacterial spray, the company commissioned studies and began gathering evidence for its dermatological effects. In June, the Food and Drug Administration approved a stage-II clinical trial to investigate the medical effects of the bacteria on acne.

Jamie Heywood, the co-founder of Patients Like Me, an organization and online community where patients with rare diseases can connect, is an early funder of AOBiome and serves as the company’s chairman. When Whitlock first visited his office to explain his idea in 2004, he brought samples in old Poland Spring water bottles covered in tin foil.

“There’s a moment of time when you’re looking at David, and you’re thinking: This is either completely insane or really, really interesting. And that doesn’t go away,” Heywood said. He took the serum home and decided to give it a try.

“I tried to be the skeptical scientist,” he remembers. “But the answer was if I used it, I didn’t need deodorant. My topical allergies were dramatically less worse.” When the patent office granted Whitlock his second patent in 2010, Heywood decided to help launch the company.

ryan_AoBiome6_bizAOBiome has 11 employees and is led by a cadre of alumni from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who’ve held senior positions at small and large biotech companies. Whitlock serves as the company’s founding scientist.

With an undisclosed amount of angel funding and a product on sale, AOBiome has a chance to scientifically test Whitlock’s idea that the bacteria’s nitric oxide soaks into the skin for lasting health effects.

To the Cleveland Clinic’s Stuehr, AOBiome’s success validates that glimmer of genius he saw more than a decade ago.

“You need to have people coming in from the outside, coming up with ideas that seem crazy at first, even,” he said. “But that’s how discoveries are made.”

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at [email protected]
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