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Fat-busting laser revolutionises treatment for acne and cellulite
By Sam Lister
A technique developed by American scientists could lead to fat-related conditions, including
arterial heart disease, being melted away by high-intensity beams.
cel ulite and excess fat zapped with the flick of a switch? It may sound like the sci-fi
dream of teenagers and the middle-aged, but scientists have developed a laser technique
that can target and melt fat under the skin.
A team of researchers have used a machine cal ed a free-electron laser (FEL), which can
produce very specific beams, to heat and break down fat without damaging other body
The breakthrough paves the way for laser use on various fat-related conditions, including
lipid build-up linked to arterial heart disease, cel ulite and acne.
Rox Anderson, a dermatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, led the experiment using
pig fat and skin samples about 2in (5cm) thick. He said that the results were proof of the
principle for heating tissue with light.
The success of the study, which was conducted at a unit of the US Department of Energy,
could herald a precision laser treatment for acne within years.
The condition, as with cel ulite, has confounded most efforts to combat it. Questions remain
over the current most effective acne drug, isotretinoin (known as Accutane), which has been
linked to birth defects in children whose mothers used it while pregnant.
Cel ulite — deposits of subcutaneous fat and fibrous tissue that cause a dimpling effect on
the overlying skin — and other surface body fat could be targeted, as wel as the fatty
plaques that form in arteries, leading to heart attacks, Dr Anderson said. “We can envision a
fat-seeking laser, and we’re heading down that path now.”
Using the FEL, which is much more powerful than a conventional laser, the scientists were
able to choose selected laser wavelengths that could heat up the fat, which was then broken
They found that the process, cal ed selective photothermolysis, did not affect the area of skin
Dr Anderson added that he was particularly excited by the technique’s potential as a
treatment for severe acne. He said that researchers wanted to see if sebaceous glands could
be directly targeted with a particular laser wavelength, isolating the source of spots.
The sebaceous glands secrete a fatty substance cal ed sebum through the hair fol icles,
which lubricates and protects the skin. However, excess sebum can col ect and form
deposits, which are associated with acne.
The results of Dr Anderson’s study, which also involved researchers from Harvard Medical
School, were presented yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Society for Laser
Medicine and Surgery (ASLMS) in Boston, Massachusetts.
In the first part of the study the team used human fat obtained from surgical y discarded,
normal tissue. The tissue was exposed to a range of wavelengths of infra-red laser light
(from 800 to 2,600 nanometres) using the FEL, and the effects were recorded.
The researchers measured how selected wavelengths heated the fat and compared the
results with those of an experiment to heat water. At most wavelengths, water is more
efficiently heated by infra-red light. However, the researchers found three wavelengths —
915, 1,210 and 1,720 nanometres — where the effects were much more pronounced on fat.
The researchers then exposed fresh samples of pig skin and fat, about 2in thick, to free-
electron infra-red light using the two most promising wavelengths, 1,210nm and 1,720nm.
To imitate surgical conditions, the pig skin was placed next to a window, which mimicked the
application of a cold compress to a patient’s skin. The researchers zapped samples with
beams of infra-red laser light from 8mm to 17mm for about 16 seconds.
They found that the 1,210nm wavelength heated the pig fat up to 1cm deep without
damaging the overlying skin. At this particular setting, the fat was heated to a temperature
more than twice that of the overlying skin.
“The root cause of acne is a lipid-rich gland, the sebaceous gland, which sits a few
mil imetres below the surface of the skin,” Dr Anderson said. “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 (the particular wave frequency), we may be able to do that.”
Laser treatments have been used for atherosclerosis — when fatty deposits form in arteries
and then rupture, causing heart attacks and strokes — but none has had the accuracy of the
Scientists believe that a frequency could be identified that breaks down plaques without
Judy O’Sul ivan, a cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said that the research
sounded exciting, but cautioned that there was stil a long way to go before it could be seen
as an effective treatment for heart disease.
CELLULITE MILLIONS AFFECTED BY CONDITIONS
It is thought to affect about 90 per cent of women over 30 in Britain
Testosterone deficiency can lead to male cel ulite, but men are less prone because of the
The formation of cel ulite is closely linked to the effects of hormones in the body, especial y
Treatments include pil s, potions and exercise regimes. The clothing firm Miss Sixty recently
introduced “anti-cel ulite” trousers, skirts and jeans
Up to 85 per cent of teenagers are thought to have some degree of acne
In some cases the condition first appears when people are in their twenties or thirties,
especial y in women whose hormones are constantly fluctuating. For most, acne goes away
Some estimates suggest that a quarter of adults aged 25 to 44 experience acne
Early treatment is the best way to prevent scars. Patients can receive over-the-counter or
prescription drugs, applied on the skin or taken oral y
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) kil s 233,000 people a year in the UK, and 16.7 mil ion a year
worldwide. It accounts for four out of ten deaths in the UK
The build-up of fatty deposits inside the arteries — atherosclerosis — can cause it
About half of al CVD deaths are from coronary heart disease (CHD) and a quarter from
Nearly al CHD deaths are from a heart attack. More than 270,000 people in the UK suffer a
heart attack each year. About half are fatal
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