October 17, 2011
Hair-transplant surgery could become cheaper and more accessible with a new robot that plucks hair follicles from the back and sides of the head so they can be moved to the top and front of a balding pate.
It normally takes eight to nine hours to individually harvest, by hand, the 1,000 follicle clusters needed to build a full mane of hair, according to Dr. James Harris, director of the Hair Sciences Center of Colorado in Denver. Since the surgery is tricky and time-consuming, fewer than 10% of hair-restoration surgeons do it. Most simply remove a whole strip of scalp and separate out the follicles under a microscope. Strip surgery is painful and takes weeks or months to heal versus just a couple of days' healing time and less scarring with individual follicular-unit extraction, Harris says.
The new ARTAS robot decides which follicles to collect and plucks them out as the doctor stands by to check its work. The surgeon can watch from the same room or via a remote monitor.
Harris says the time passes quickly as he watches the robot do its thing: "It's certainly less tedious than doing it by hand. It allows me to think more about the other things I'm going to do with the patient."
The robot halves the surgery time, Harris says, and surgeons can be trained in its use in a couple of days, rather than the two to three years it took him to perfect the by-hand operation.
Harris developed a blade for the drill tip that the machine uses to punch out follicles without damaging them and licensed it to Restoration Robotics Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., the company that makes ARTAS. His office is one of two that tested a prototype of the machine.
Harris was so impressed he became the first hair-restoration specialist to install the ARTAS robot, which was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year. He and his fellow testers have already put more than 350 heads under the machine's care, with no complications, he says.
Since collecting follicles one by one directly from the scalp is so time-consuming and difficult, physicians that do it charge $5,000 to $10,000, Harris says. The robot cost $200,000, but because it saves him time, Harris offers patients a discount if they let ARTAS do the follicle extraction.
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