Innovator banks on ‘truly smart’ robotic lasers in dermatology


It’s hard to think of a clinician who has had more of an impact on dermatology in recent decades than R. Rox Anderson, MD.

Dr. R. Rox Anderson, Director, the Wellman Center for Photomedicine, Boston.

Dr. R. Rox Anderson

Dr. Anderson, director of the Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, conceived and developed many of the nonscarring laser treatments now widely used in dermatology. These include selective photothermolysis for birthmarks, microvascular and pigmented lesions, and tattoo and permanent hair removal. He also contributed to laser lithotripsy, laser angioplasty, photodynamic therapy, and optical diagnostics. The highest-resolution imaging device approved for human use, an infrared confocal microscope, came from his laboratory. Dr. Anderson has also contributed to basic knowledge of human photobiology, drug photosensitization mechanisms, tissue optics and laser-tissue interactions. In this Q&A with Doug Brunk, he reflects on his achievements and on the future of lasers in dermatology.

In published interviews you have described yourself as more of a problem solver than an inventor. How did your upbringing foster your affinity for problem solving?

I grew up in Central Illinois during the 1950s and early 1960s, an area known for corn, soybeans, and hogs. At an early age I learned to be interested in other things because it’s possible to die of boredom there. By the time I was 12 years old, I was an amateur radio operator, and I was building rockets to see how high they would go.

Problem solving comes naturally to me. I enjoy very much finding a problem that is worth solving, which means getting passionate about it and brainstorming. Half the time you don’t come up with a potential route to solve the problem. I attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the age of 17, which was a real eye-opener. I had never been east of the Wabash River prior to that. I studied physics for a while, then decided to flip into biology. That combination has served me well. My special sauce is to have some intuitive and academic rigorous feeling for physical processes. But we physicians have a front row seat to nature’s human drama. There is no lack of problems to solve. I can sit around and obsess about things theoretically, but at the end of the day I want to work on things that ultimately benefit people.

What inspired you most early in your career as a physician scientist?

After I made a commitment to medicine, Dr. John A. Parrish, and Dr. Thomas B. Fitzpatrick were key mentors to me. I was 30 years old when I started medical school, but they took me under their wing even before that. I took a part-time, temporary job with them, which turned into a permanent job. That turned into a love for the work they did. Instead of going into a graduate program in a laboratory and studying bacteria and genetics, the whole idea of working with people and on people was awesome. Dr. Parrish really mentored me. I won a lifetime achievement award from the American Academy of Dermatology a few years ago. I found myself on stage and it rolled out of my mouth that John Parrish believed in me before I believed in myself. It’s really true. He somehow recognized that I had some talents. I was very young and a combination of naive and humble, I guess.

Dr. John A. Parrish, left, congratulates Dr. R. Rox Anderson on being recognized for his contributions to dermatology during a meeting of the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery. Courtesy The Wellman Center for Photomedicine

Dr. John A. Parrish (left) congratulates Dr. R. Rox Anderson on being recognized for his contributions to dermatology during a meeting of the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery.

What was the initial genesis for your idea of selective photothermolysis?

I was interested in going to medical school and working with Dr. Fitzpatrick and Dr. Parrish on things related to light. They were mostly interested in PUVA and UVB; it was the heyday of modern phototherapy. I attended a lecture at the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston given by a plastic surgeon, Dr. Joel Mark Noe. He was talking about using lasers to treat port-wine stains in children. The gist of the talk was that argon lasers were being used, and that the results were sometimes decent, but not great. Often children would have burn scars after the treatment. Dr. Noe was talking about how you had to choose the color of the wavelength of the laser to be absorbed by hemoglobin, but he wasn’t talking about what happens to the heat once it’s created. My background in physics led me to recognize that he wasn’t capturing the full picture. Selective disruption of a target in the skin by light is half of the story. The confinement of heat in the target is the other half of the story. Literally on a bus on the way home from that lecture to my apartment in Cambridge, I hatched the idea for selective photothermolysis and wrote down some equations. I also wrote down the ideal wavelength region, how much energy was needed, and what the pulse duration would have to be like to damage target vessels that small. I showed John Parrish what I had written. He took me seriously and said, “Let’s see if we can find a light source that can accomplish this.” We traveled around the country looking at various lasers, but we wound up building the first pulsed dye laser for treating port-wine stains. To me, the surprise was that we didn’t kill the skin. If you treat an area of skin with a laser and hurt all the blood vessels, you think, “Wait a minute. Are we going to kill the skin because it has no blood supply?” The questions of the day were so basic, and we just got lucky. It took 6-8 years before we ramped up the clinical studies showing efficacy and safety of this technology.

I presume that you experimented on your own skin while developing some of the nonscarring laser treatments now widely used in dermatology. What “war story” stands out to you most from that part of your work?

I’m right handed, so I’d grab a laser with my right hand and treat my left arm, so that arm sports a bit of history. In 1994, while working with Dr. Melanie Grossman on the development of laser hair removal, I used a ruby laser to self-treat a patch of hair on my left arm. I still have the world’s oldest laser-induced bald spot on that arm. It’s been 26 years now. I still look at it and count the hairs, because one of the big questions is, is laser hair removal permanent? In all these years I have grown two hairs.


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