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Laser technology advancements are giving many patients hope in overcoming skin ailments like vitiligo. Hassan Ammar / AP
Laser technology advancements are giving many patients hope in overcoming skin ailments like vitiligo. Hassan Ammar / AP

Lasers have bright future in world of medicine

Hair loss, cellulite and skin conditions are being zapped by breakthroughs in high-tech health care.

Perhaps it's not the greatest choice of words, but a rash of recent technological advances in laser surgery may have moved the world of medicine closer to curing some irritating and in some cases life-debilitating ailments.

Following the 70th annual meeting of the Academy of Dermatology in the US, a series of reports on research into the world of laser surgery presented there could bring some hope to those upset by hair loss, cellulite and the skin paling condition vitiligo.

Since the advancement of laser eye surgery has enabled millions to throw away their spectacles, the next big breakthrough using the miracle working light rays has been eagerly awaited.

Certainly light source treatments have become the cornerstone of many modern cosmetic treatments. Even if you don't have direct experience of it, a flick through the showbiz section of The National or a skim over any trendy fashion magazine will leave you in no doubt of the power of the laser to improve ageing skin or shine up a smile.

Now, the latest batch of advanced laser techniques are providing some interesting results in treating some of our great unsolved lifestyle issues - hair loss, nail fungus and cellulite.

"We've seen an increasing number of both men and women coming through the door as the demand for non-invasive therapies rises," explains Jelena Bamljanovic, a laser treatment specialist at the Dubai Cosmetic Surgery in the UAE.

"Our market is predominantly locals, but there are many expats around Dubai also opting for treatments that include skin rejuvenation with selected use lasers - it's becoming as common as going for a facial," she says. Other treatments include using UV light to treat hyperpigmentation (the darkening of skin) and even a popular "beard shaping" procedure among men. "The men go to the barbers to have their beard cut to the shape they want, then have the laser surgery to prevent hair growing back beyond the outline," explains Bamljanovic.

The demand for laser surgery around the globe has been coupled with a more focused investigation by skin specialists and medics concerned that - while some treatments like laser eye surgery have proved to be hugely successful - others should still be approached with a great deal of caution.

In her presentation to the Academy of Dermatology conference, Dr Molly Wanner, from the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, examined how Low-Level Laser Therapy (LLLT) is being used to fight fat and stimulate hair growth.

It has played a significant part in wound healing in the past but now several new devices have been developed and touted as being able to reverse hair loss by using the same process. Indeed, one study of an LLLT hair restoring system showed that, on average, users experienced an increase in hair growth of 19.8 hairs per centimetre squared. But Dr Wanner is the first to warn that much more scientific data is needed before these new treatments can be recommended. She also advises hair-loss patients to discuss treatment options with a dermatologist first.

"Light treatments are used to stimulate hair growth - but for us it's not the most popular treatment because it's time consuming," says Jelena Bamljanovic. "Many sessions are required and the progress can be slow - men especially will consider faster-fix treatments such as transplants ahead of this procedure."

However, as the laser technology improves, along with that of home-use light therapies, so has the demand for hair regrowth treatments risen.

"I'll treat 60 to 70 people a week, mainly women," says Mike Ryan, a consultant trichologist for the Hair Spa at Gulf Towers in Dubai.

"The low level light treatments continue to advance and are becoming more commonplace as awareness has rocketed in the UAE," says Ryan. "Results can take time of course and clients tend to notice a healing effect to their hair loss, to varying degrees, in around three months."

Other treatments to come under the dermatologist academy spotlight included photodynamic therapy for the treatment of nail fungus - a form of athlete's foot that can decay the toenail to the point of it coming away from the skin. It's often treated using oral medication or topical cream, with varying success. The latest review of laser treatments revealed some positive results though, again, the experts warned that further research was needed into more effective and safe laser wavelengths.

Dr Wanner also reported on how evidence for lasers to treat the lumpy, bumpy skin texture that characterises cellulite showed some improvement for some people. But the research found that any changes to the cellulite caused by the current standard of laser treatments would diminish over time - and "top-up" treatments may be necessary.

Bamljanovic, the laser treatment specialist, is wary that there's still some way to go for the development of laser treatments in such areas, too. "We use a radio frequency treatment here for cellulite because it's something that penetrates deeper into the skin and provides successful results," she says.

However, it's in the treatment of the chronic skin condition vitiligo - which can cause areas of the skin to lose pigment and become patchy - that the greatest hope for some substantial improvements have arisen.

Vitiligo is thought to stem from the body's immune system attacking melanocytes (the cells that produce pigment) - leaving the affected area of skin devoid of colour. It most often affects the face, elbows, knees, hands and feet - and it's more noticeable in people with darker skin tones.

Some surgeries do already offer a form of localised UV treatment to "mild" case sufferers. Patches of vitiligo-affected skin are exposed to UV rays in an attempt to induce some activity in the cells. "We refer to specialists who are making some great strides in the surgical treatment of this condition," says Bamljanovic.

Indeed, the American Academy of Dermatology have revealed that developments in skin grafting treatments coupled with skin cell transplants and follow-up light therapy hold much promise for the treatment of vitiligo.

Studies by the professor Rebat Halder, from the department of dermatology at Howard University in Washington, detailed how these treatments had an 80 to 90 per cent success rate in most patients. The light therapy is used after skin grafting and melanocyte (skin cell) transplants to stimulate new pigment growth faster in treated areas.

Bamljanovic believes the use of laser treatments are definitely lighting the way forward and feels that UAE citizens is becoming more comfortable with their use. "It's still an issue for some people, but in the future these techniques will only get better, faster and more convenient."

For now though, academics like Dr Wanner who meet to review the growing number of laser treatments remain guarded. "It's very important for consumers to understand that they could pursue a treatment and see no improvement," says Dr Wanner. "Future studies could help pinpoint which patients these new therapies might work best and may provide the evidence dermatologists need to evaluate these procedures before we can recommend them to our patients."


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