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Free-Electron Laser Targets Fat
Boston, Mass. - Fat may have finally met its match: laser light.
Researchers at the Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General
Hospital, Harvard Medical School and the Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson
National Accelerator Facility (Jefferson Lab) have shown, for the first time,
that a laser can preferentially heat lipid-rich tissues, or fat, in the body
without harming the overlying skin. Laser therapies based on the new research
could treat a variety of health conditions, including severe acne,
atherosclerotic plaque, and unwanted cellulite. The result will be presented at
the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery (ASLMS) 26th Annual Meeting
in Boston, Mass.
In the first part of the study, the researchers used human fat obtained from
surgically discarded normal tissue. Based on a fat absorption spectrum, tissue
was exposed to a range of wavelengths of infrared laser light ( 800-2600
nanometers ) using the Free-Electron Laser facility at Jefferson Lab. The
researchers measured how selected wavelengths heated the fat and compared the
result to a similar experiment conducted with pure water. At most infrared
wavelengths, water is more efficiently heated by infrared light; however, the
researchers found three wavelengths " 915, 1210 and 1720 nm " where fat was
more efficiently heated than water.
The researchers then exposed fresh, intact pig skin-and-fat tissue samples,
about two inches thick, to free-electron laser infrared light centered around
the two most promising wavelengths, 1210 and 1720 nm. To imitate potential
surgical conditions, the pig skin was placed next to a cold window, which
mimicked the application of a cold compress to the skin prior to laser exposure.
The researchers zapped samples with beams of infrared laser light ranging from
eight to 17 mm wide for about 16 seconds. They found that the 1210 nm wavelength
preferentially heated pig fat up to 1 cm deep, without damaging the overlying
skin. At 1210 nm, laser-induced heating of fat was more than twice that of the
overlying skin; at 1720 nm, it was about 1.7 times that of skin.
Rox Anderson, lead author on the study and a practicing dermatologist at
Harvard, says the results provide a proof of principle for the use of selective
photothermolysis, selectively heating tissues with light, for several potential
medical applications. Dr. Anderson is most excited about the potential for using
lasers to target sebaceous glands. "The root cause of acne is a lipid-rich
gland, the sebaceous gland, which sits a few millimeters below the surface of
the skin," Anderson says, "We want to be able to selectively target the
sebaceous gland, and this research shows that if we can build lasers at this
region of the spectrum, we may be able to do that."
He says a selective laser treatment for acne could potentially replace the best
acne drug, which is isotretinoin ( commonly known as Accutane® ). The drug has
major side effects and has been linked to severe birth defects in children whose
mothers have used it while pregnant. Just last month, the FDA initiated the
iPledge program in an attempt to reduce the number of pregnancies in female
patients on the drug. These patients cannot obtain or fill their prescription
unless they pass an initial screening and two negative pregnancy tests. The
program also requires patients to promise to use two forms of contraception and
submit a negative pregnancy test result each month while on the drug.
Dr. Anderson also envisions that laser treatments could emerge for other medical
conditions involving lipid-rich tissues, such as atherosclerosis, which causes
heart disease and stroke. Fatty plaques form in arteries, rupture, and kill
millions of people each year. A selective treatment that stabilizes lipid
plaques could be much better than previous attempts at laser treatment for heart
"We can envision a fat-seeking laser, and we're heading down that path now,"
Anderson says. The next step is to specifically develop these potential
applications. If successful, new lasers capable of producing the appropriate
wavelengths can be commissioned to target fat, sebaceous glands or plaques in
patients. Dr. Anderson and the Wellman Center in Boston have already contributed
many laser therapies, including non-scarring skin treatments for birthmarks.
Anderson says this study was made possible by the physics knowledge that built
the Free-Electron Laser ( FEL ) at Jefferson Lab and a grant from the Department
of Defense for the exploration of medical uses for FELs. "The Jefferson Lab
FEL is an energy-recovering machine that produces laser light at the right
wavelengths and right power that we need to do this research. This is a bit of a
plug for the value of these very high-energy, accelerator-based lasers for
physics. Because, in fact, they allow us to do experiments we couldn't do
otherwise," he explains.
Fred Dylla, FEL project manager, agrees. "The FEL has opened up a wide variety
of research opportunities in all the sciences and is leading to great strides in
applied research, such as defense technologies, medicine, and nanomaterials,"
Dylla says, "Every day, we're discovering new applications for the FEL."
The Jefferson Lab FEL is built on the same technology -- superconducting
radiofrequency accelerator technology -- that drives the lab's CEBAF
accelerator. CEBAF provides a nearly continuous beam of electrons for nuclear
physics experiments. "The superconducting radiofrequency accelerator
technology that the FEL is built on allows us to tune laser light through a wide
range of frequencies, including the infrared, terahertz, and soon, ultraviolet.
Traditional lasers don't have that capability; they can only provide light at
These research results will be presented at the American Society for Laser
Medicine and Surgery ( ASLMS ) 26th Annual Meeting on Sunday, April 9 in Boston,
Mass. The talk is titled "Action Spectrum for Selective Photothermal
Excitation of Fatty Tissue" and will be delivered at 11:46 a.m. in the
Sheraton Grand Ballroom during the Dermatoplastics session of the meeting.
This work was supported in part by the Department of Defense; by the Office of
Naval Research; and by the Commonwealth of Virginia.
email@example.com or ( 757 ) 269-7263
Wellman Center for Photomedicine
firstname.lastname@example.org or ( 617 ) 726-3308
For more information on the FEL, visit:
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