Laser Pioneer Reflects on the Future of Robots in Dermatology

Doug Brunk

November 23, 2022

Dr R. Rox Anderson

In the opinion of R. Rox Anderson, MD, it's only a matter of time before true robots make further inroads in dermatology.

"We humans just can't do everything perfectly," Anderson, a dermatologist who directs the Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, said during a virtual course on laser and aesthetic skin therapy. "We have limited speed and special accuracy and are not good at repetitive tasks. We can't see in the UV or infrared, and we're qualitative, not quantitative...We're good at high-level visual assessment."

During a presentation at the meeting, which was sponsored by Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Wellman Center, he distinguished between robotics and true robots. A prime example of robotics in medicine is the Da Vinci Surgical System in which a human user "is controlling every movement of this device with capabilities that humans don't have, such as fine movement and high magnification of imaging," said Anderson, who conceived and developed many of the nonscarring laser treatments now widely used in dermatology. "In the military, we have drone aircraft. The pilot is perhaps thousands of miles away; it's still run by a human being in every way."

By contrast, true robots are devices in which a human being programs the rules for action but the action itself is not exactly predictable. Artificial intelligence enables robots to perform certain tasks. "If you look at an Amazon warehouse, there's barely anyone there; robots are packing and unpacking the shelves," Anderson said.

Currently, he said, one true robot exists in dermatology: the Food and Drug Administration–cleared ARTAS Robotic Hair Restoration System, which precisely dissects follicular units from the donor area and eliminates the potential for human error. The device "extracts single follicular units from the occipital scalp and makes them available to the surgeon to do an artistic human job of implanting them in the frontal scalp," Anderson said.

He predicts that a Mohs surgery robot with image-guided laser ablation would "launch a sea change in the whole field of surgical oncology, and I believe we are in a good position to do it. Everything for this is now sitting on the shelf and it's unbelievable to me that a company hasn't accomplished it yet."

He would also like to see a true laser robot for surgery of tumors that would enable clinicians to download an app for their existing laser instead of having to buy a new device. Currently, "it takes about a half second to make a good optical coherence tomography image of basal cell carcinoma," he said. "That image could be used for real-time robotic human control of, say, a laser to extirpate the tumor."

Anderson's "wish list" of applications for treatment with a robotic fractional laser includes those that target the sweat glands, sebaceous glands, nerves, inflammatory cells, white hair, blood vessels, lymphatics, hair, tumors, nevi, cysts, and surface contour. "It might be possible to have one software-programmable laser robot for many different applications in dermatology," he added.

Anderson reported having received research funding and/or consulting fees from numerous device and pharmaceutical companies.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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