Zapping fat, zits

A Harvard doctor doing research at the lab hopes to market a new way to remove acne and body fat.

Clearing up acne
Boston dermatologist Rox Anderson hopes to someday cure acne with laser treatments tested at Jefferson Lab, a research center in Newport News.

What is acne? An inflammatory skin disorder that erupts in pimples when hair follicles and oil glands block skin pores.

Who's affected? One estimate - acne afflicts more than 60 million Americans. Another estimate - 80 percent of people between ages 11 and 30 have an acne outbreak at some point.

What did Anderson learn? He found that some frequencies of laser light will heat and kill fatty cells without harming the skin.

Why does that matter? Laser treatment could help people with severe acne avoid permanent scarring without taking drugs, which can have major side effects. It could also be a less-invasive alternative to liposuction.

When will it be available? Anderson hopes to see commercial treatments available in about two years.

NEWPORT NEWS -- A 2-inch-thick hunk of pigskin and pork fat zapped with a laser at a Newport News research lab could lead within several years to a new way for doctors to remove excess body fat and treat severe acne.

The pigskin was part of a study at Jefferson Lab that showed Rox Anderson, a dermatologist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, how certain wavelengths of infrared laser light can selectively heat fat tissues without damaging skin.

"We can kill fat cells without destroying the overlying skin," Anderson said. "It does not involve sticking you with a needle. All it involves is otherwise harmless laser light."

Pending additional tests, future laser treatments could offer an alternative to liposuction, the nation's most popular cosmetic surgery, and could replace Accutane (isotretinoin), the most powerful drug used by some of the more than 60 million Americans with acne.

Also, Anderson's research could potentially lead to laser treatments for a type of arteriosclerosis formed by fatty plaques that build up in large and medium-sized arteries, causing heart disease and stroke.

Testing occurred at Jefferson Lab, a nuclear physics laboratory funded by the U.S. Department of Energy in the Oyster Point area, because no other lab could beam such a powerful laser light in a wide range of wavelengths.

The lab has operated the Free Electron Laser since 1998, upgrading its power two years ago to 10 kilowatts - about 10 million times more powerful than a typical grocery store scanner.

Laser acne treatment
Research at Jefferson Lab shows that doctors can use laser lights to kill sebaceous glands - the cause of pimples - without burning the skin.

The Navy has covered much of the laser's cost in hopes of developing new ship-defense systems, but scientists have used the laser to do things such as create a germ-killing nylon fabric and to machine metals to one ten-thousandth of a centimeter.

"This experiment could not have been done anywhere else in the world," said Fred Dylla, the laser's project manager. "It's a perfect example of why we built this facility."

Anderson announced his findings earlier this week in Boston at a conference for laser medicine professionals.

He heads the Wellman Center for Photomedicine, the largest research center in the laser medicine field. He has developed non-scarring laser treatments to remove tattoos, birthmarks and unwanted hair.

"My personal goal is to cure acne," Anderson said. "Not just a treatment. A cure."

In most instances, infrared wavelengths heat water more efficiently than they heat fat, meaning they burn skin before reaching the underlying fatty tissues.

But Anderson and his research team tested on pork fat as well as human tissue and found two wavelengths that heat fat much better than water.

That means a laser tuned to those wavelengths could destroy the oil-dispensing glands of skin pores that are the root cause of acne.

Anderson said such laser treatments could replace the best acne drug, a powerful medicine with strong side effects.

Researchers have linked the drug to birth defects when used by pregnant women. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently required patients to pass an initial screening and to submit two negative pregnancy tests before a prescription is filled. Additional pregnancy tests are required monthly.

Anderson expects to be conducting human tests about one year from now. He hopes laser treatments are available commercially in about two years.