UMass Amherst’s Kelly N. Haas Receives Funding to Study the Hand’s Microbiome

Research partnership with GOJO Industries will study healthier handwashing
Kelly Haas
Kelly Haas
Staphylococcus epidermidis, the most prevalent bacterium on human hands.
Staphylococcus epidermidis, the most prevalent bacterium on human hands.

AMHERST, Mass. – Skin microbiome researcher Kelly Haas, of the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s biology department, recently began a research partnership with Akron, Ohio-based GOJO Industries to study the structure, stability and resilience of the hand microbiome.

The collaboration focuses on understanding fundamental aspects of the hand’s microbiome: what microbes are supposed to be growing on a hand in the first place, and where do they come from? The microbiome works in synergy with the skin itself to provide a barrier against infection. Haas says, “Think of a healthy skin microbiome as a defense for your first line of defense: your skin.” A healthy skin microbiome maintains an acidic pH and provides colonization resistance against the harmful microbes you encounter but which should not be taking up residence on your body. However, the hands are a main intermediary for germs and must be frequently cleansed to reduce transmission of potential pathogens between surfaces, other people, and yourself.

Haas believes that there is an endogenous hand-microbiome community that grows from hard-to-clean niches on your hands and/or from touching your body, face, and hair. “We want to know how this community responds to hand-hygiene events and what the aftermath looks like. How long does it take to ‘return to normal’?” She asks. Haas’s clinical studies, in collaboration with UMMS Dermatology, will be combined with benchwork focused on optimizing the methods to improve the accuracy of skin microbiome studies.

For healthcare workers, or for anyone living in a pandemic, frequent hand washing also scrubs away the protective acid mantle and endogenous microbiome, leading to dermatitis or atopy characterized by red, dry, irritated, and itchy skin. “Combating disease spread is the top priority,” Haas says, “So there is a trade-off. What we hope to do is to figure out how to replace or support the good things that were killed or washed-off.”

Haas says, “The people at GOJO are wonderful to work with in addition to being very focused on the science, and we both hope this partnership will continue for many years and result in new hand hygiene products that minimize that trade-off between public health and personal hand health.”