Pudge and pimples, watch out!

This laser can blast away fat and acne, maybe fight terrorists.

One of the world's most powerful tunable lasers that the Navy wants to develop as a weapon against terrorism can blast away other ugly enemies fat and zits.

The Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility's Free Electron Laser kills selected fat cells without injuring the surrounding skin or tissue, researchers say.

The experimental work conducted with the Newport News-based laser was reported by Dr. Rox Anderson, a Harvard University dermatologist who specializes in using lasers to treat skin diseases, at a recent conference of the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery. The research has been submitted to a medical journal for publication.

Variety of conditions

Anderson says the process, called selective photothermolysis, could someday treat a variety of health conditions, including eradicating jiggly thighs, severe acne and the fatty buildup in arteries that can cause heart disease.

Dermatologists are exploring various kinds of lasers to treat skin ailments, but this is the first time the free-electron laser from the Jefferson Lab — where researchers typically explore the nuclei of atoms — has been used this way.

Anderson said he plans to conduct more animal testing and apply within a year for clinical trials to use a commercially available laser to treat cellulite, the fatty deposits beneath a person's skin, and acne.

Research repeated

The director of the Jefferson Lab's FEL facility, Fred Dylla, and Anderson discussed the laser's potential medical applications for several years before conducting the first fat-busting experiments last June. Eight other Jefferson Lab personnel assisted in the research, which was repeated last month to confirm results, Dylla said.

The free-electron laser was used to study the effects of different, specific wavelengths of infrared light on human tissue discarded after surgery and pig skin and fat.

A laser is a concentrated beam of light confined to a single wavelength. The free-electron laser can concentrate its beam from as wide as an inch to as small as one-eighth the width of a human hair. It can be set to various specific wavelengths.

Armed with the free-electron laser, the researchers measured how various wavelengths heated the discarded human fatty tissue, searching for the wavelengths that would be well-absorbed by cells that contain a lot of fat, Anderson said.

Then the researchers turned the laser on 2-inch-thick pieces of pig skin and fat. The laser zapped tissue samples for 16 seconds in beams ranging up to two-thirds of an inch.

Set at the 1,210-nanometer wavelength, the laser heated the targeted fat to a depth equal to the width of a paper clip. The laser did not damage the overlying skin despite heating the fat to twice that of the raised temperature of the targeted tissue, according to the researchers.

Targeting sebaceous glands

Anderson's interest in the laser is for treating severe acne by targeting the sebaceous glands, which sit adjacent to hair follicles just below the skin's surface. The glands produce fatty sebum that lubricates the skin and hair, but killing some of the body's glands should not cause problems, Anderson said.

Anderson blames most of acne's troubles on the sebaceous gland: The bacteria associated with acne feeds on the sebum and the sebum plugs the follicles.

"If you had to do one thing that was most likely to knock out the acne... it would be to reduce the activity of the sebaceous gland, that's what I'm after," he said.

Lasers might help acne patients avoid side effects of drug treatment, Anderson said. For example, the prescription drug Accutane can cause birth defects in children born to mothers who used it during pregnancy.

Scientific research

The Jefferson Lab's free-electron laser, one of about 50 worldwide, is used mostly for scientific research.

Companies such as DuPont, 3M and Dominion Virginia Power are interested in potential commercial applications of the free-electron laser for its precise methods of cutting and altering the surface of materials. They're studying ways to make durable polymer fabrics for clothing and carpeting; cheap, easily recyclable beverage and food packaging; and corrosion-resistant metals with increased toughness.

The Navy is interested in the free-electron laser as a potential weapon that could shoot down an incoming missile or disable a small boatload of terrorists before it can pull close to a Navy ship.