Clinical Review

Energy-Based Devices for Actinic Keratosis Field Therapy

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Cutaneous field cancerization arises due to UV-induced carcinogenesis of a “field” of subclinically transformed skin and actinic keratoses (AKs) with a tendency to progress and recur. Commonly used treatment methods for multiple AKs include imiquimod, fluorouracil, ingenol mebutate, and photodynamic therapy; however, new options in field-directed therapy with superior efficacy, cosmesis, and convenience may appeal to patients. Ablative and nonablative lasers may fulfill these advantages and have been investigated as monotherapies and combination therapies for field cancerization. In this article, a review of the literature on various laser modalities with a focus on efficacy is provided.

Practice Points

  • Ablative fractional laser therapy in combination with photodynamic therapy has demonstrated increased efficacy in treating field actinic keratoses (AKs) for up to 12 months of follow-up over either modality alone.
  • Ablative and nonablative lasers as monotherapy in treating field AKs require further studies with larger sample sizes to determine efficacy and safety.



In cutaneous field cancerization, focal treatments such as cryotherapy are impractical, thus necessitating the use of field-directed therapies over the lesion and the surrounding skin field. Although evidence-based guidelines do not exist, field-directed therapy has been proposed in cases of 3 or more actinic keratoses (AKs) in a 25-cm2 area or larger.1 It can be further speculated that patients who are vulnerable to aggressive phenotypes of cutaneous malignancies, such as those with a genodermatosis or who are immunocompromised, necessitate a higher index of suspicion for field effect with even 1 or 2 AKs.

Current field-directed therapies include topical agents (imiquimod, fluorouracil, ingenol mebutate, and diclo-fenac), photodynamic therapy (PDT), and resurfacing procedures (lasers, chemical peels, dermabrasion). Although topical agents and PDT currently are gold standards in field treatment, the use of energy-based devices (ie, ablative and nonablative lasers) are attractive options as monotherapy or as part of a combination therapy. These devices are attractive options for field-directed therapy because they offer defined, customizable control of settings, allowing for optimal cosmesis and precision of therapy.

Principally, lasers function by damaging skin tissue to induce resurfacing, neocollagenesis, and vascular restructuring. Fractional versions of ablative and nonablative systems are available to target a fraction of the treatment area in evenly spaced microthermal zones and to minimize overall thermal damage.2

Given recent advances in laser systems and numerous investigations reported in the literature, a review of ablative and nonablative lasers that have been studied as treatment options for cutaneous field cancerization is provided, with a focus on treatment efficacy.

Ablative Lasers

Ablative lasers operate at higher wavelengths than nonablative lasers to destroy epidermal and dermal tissue. The 10,600-nm carbon dioxide (CO2) and 2940-nm Er:YAG lasers have been heavily investigated for field therapy for multiple AKs, both as monotherapies (Table 1) and in combination with PDT (Table 2).

One randomized trial with 5-year follow-up compared the efficacy of full-face pulsed CO2 laser therapy, full-face trichloroacetic acid (TCA) peel 30%, and fluorouracil cream 5% (twice daily for 3 weeks) on AKs on the face and head.3 Thirty-one participants were randomized to the 3 treatment arms and a negative control arm. The mean AK counts at baseline for the CO2, TCA, and fluorouracil treatment groups were 78.0, 83.7, and 61.8, respectively. At 3-month follow-up, all treatment groups had significant reductions in the mean AK count from baseline (CO2 group, 92% [P=.03]; TCA group, 89% [P=.004]; fluorouracil group, 83% [P=.008]). No significant differences in efficacy among the treatment groups were noted. All 3 treatment groups had a demonstrably lower incidence of nonmelanoma skin cancer over 5-year follow-up compared to the control group (P<.001).3

In contrast to these promising results, the pulsed CO2 laser showed only short-term efficacy in a split-face study of 12 participants with at least 5 facial or scalp AKs on each of 2 symmetric facial sides who were randomized to 1 treatment side.4 At 1-month follow-up, the treatment side exhibited significantly fewer AKs compared to the control side (47% vs 71% at baseline; P=.01), but the improvement was not sustained at 3-month follow-up (49% vs 57%; P=.47).4

In another study, the CO2 laser was found to be inferior to 5-aminolevulinic acid PDT.5 Twenty-one participants who had at least 4 AKs in each symmetric half of a body region (head, hands, forearms) were randomized to PDT on 1 side and CO2 laser therapy on the other. Median baseline AK counts for the PDT and CO2 laser groups were 6 and 8, respectively. Both treatment groups exhibited significant median AK reduction from baseline 4 weeks posttreatment (PDT group, 82.1% [P<.05], CO2 laser group, 100% [P<.05]); however. at 3 months posttreatment the PDT group had significantly higher absolute (P=.0155) and relative (P=.0362) reductions in AK count compared to the CO2 laser group. One participant received a topical antibiotic for superficial infection on the PDT treatment side.5

Many questions remain regarding the practical application of laser ablation monotherapy for multiple AKs. More studies are needed to determine the practicality and long-term clinical efficacy of these devices.

PDT Combination Therapy
Laser ablation may be combined with PDT to increase efficacy and prolong remission rates. In fact, laser ablation may be thought of as a physical drug-delivery system to boost uptake of topical agents—in this case, aminolevulinic acid and methyl aminolevulinate (MAL)—given that it disrupts the skin barrier.

In a comparative study of ablative fractional laser (AFXL)–assisted PDT and AFXL alone in 10 organ transplant recipients on immunosuppression with at least 5 AKs on each dorsal hand, participants were randomized to AFXL-PDT on one treatment side and PDT on the other side.6 Participants received AFXL in an initial lesion-directed pass and then a second field-directed pass of a fractional CO2 laser. After AFXL exposure, methyl aminolevulinate was applied to the AFXL-PDT treatment side, with 3-hour occlusion. A total of 680 AKs were treated (335 in the AFXL-PDT group, 345 in the PDT group); results were stratified by the clinical grade of the lesion (1, slightly palpable; 2, moderately thick; 3, very thick or obvious). At 4-month follow-up, the AFXL-PDT group had a significantly higher median complete response rate of 73% compared to 31% in the AFXL group (P=.002). Interestingly, AFXL-PDT was also significantly more efficacious compared to AFXL for grades 1 (80% vs 37%; P=.02) and 2 (53% vs 7%, P=.009) AKs but not grade 3 AKs (4% vs 0%, P=.17).6

The combination of fractional CO2 laser and PDT also demonstrated superiority to PDT.7 In a split-face investigation, 15 participants with bilateral symmetric areas of 2 to 10 AKs on the face or scalp were randomized to receive fractional CO2 laser and MAL-PDT combination therapy on 1 treatment side and conventional MAL-PDT on the other side.7 The AFXL-PDT treatment side received laser ablation with immediate subsequent application of MAL to both treatment sides under 3-hour occlusion. At baseline, 103 AKs were treated by AFXL-PDT and 109 AKs were treated with conventional PDT. At 3-month follow-up, the AFXL-PDT treatment group exhibited a significantly higher rate of complete response (90%) compared to the conventional PDT group (67%)(P=.0002).7

Like the CO2 laser, the Er:YAG laser has demonstrated superior results when used in combination with PDT to treat field cancerization compared to either treatment alone. In a comparison study, 93 patients with 2 to 10 AK lesions on the face or scalp were randomized to treatment with AFXL (Er:YAG laser) and MAL-PDT with 3-hour occlusion, AFXL (Er:YAG laser) and MAL-PDT with 2-hour occlusion, and MAL-PDT with 3-hour occlusion.8 A total of 440 baseline AK lesions on the face or scalp were treated. At 3-month follow-up, the AFXL-PDT (3-hour occlusion) group had the highest rate of complete response (91.7%), compared to 76.8% (P=.001) in the AFXL-PDT (2-hour occlusion) and 65.6% (P=.001) in the PDT groups, regardless of the grade of AK lesion. The AFXL-PDT (2-hour occlusion) treatment was also superior to PDT alone (P=.038). These findings were sustained at 12-month follow-up (84.8% in the AFXL-PDT [3-hour occlusion] group [P<.001, compared to others]; 67.5% in the AFXL-PDT [2-hour occlusion] group [P<.001, compared to 3-hour PDT]; 51.1% in the PDT group). Importantly, the AK lesion recurrence rate was also lowest in the AFL-PDT (3-hour occlusion) group (7.5% vs 12.1% and 22.1% in the AFXL-PDT [2-hour occlusion] and PDT groups, respectively; P=.007).8

Combination therapy with AFXL and daylight PDT (dPDT) may improve the tolerability of PDT and the efficacy rate of field therapy in organ transplant recipients. One study demonstrated the superiority of this combination therapy in a population of 16 organ transplant recipients on immunosuppressants with at least 2 moderate to severely thick AKs in each of 4 comparable areas in the same anatomic region.9 The 4 areas were randomized to a single session of AFXL-dPDT, dPDT alone, conventional PDT, or AFXL alone. Ablation was performed with a fractional Er:YAG laser. The AFXL-dPDT and dPDT alone groups received MAL for 2.5 hours without occlusion, and the conventional PDT group received MAL for 3 hours with occlusion. Daylight exposure in dPDT groups was initiated 30 minutes after MAL application for 2 hours total. A baseline total of 542 AKs were treated. At 3-month follow-up, the complete response rate was highest for the AFXL-dPDT group (74%) compared to dPDT alone (46%; P=.0262), conventional PDT (50%; P=.042), and AFXL alone (5%; P=.004). Pain scores for AFXL–dPDT and dPDT alone were significantly lower than for conventional PDT and AFXL alone (P<.001).9

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