Unless you’re a professional tattoo artist (or a anxious teen with a needle and lighter), you probably haven’t considered inking yourself. But that may one day change: Researchers have designed single-use patches with tiny needles that are easy to use and can painlessly apply tattoos to the skin. While these microneedle tattoo patches will be used for veterinary care in the near future, the researchers say the applications could expand to human medical and cosmetic care in the future.
“If someone wanted the symbol of their university, their favorite football team, someone’s name or such a simple tattoo, the microneedle patch could work,” said Mark Prausnitz, a chemical and biomolecular engineering researcher at Georgia Tech. the recent study, The Daily Beast told. “It can be given by an expert, but there could be scenarios where a person could self-administer.” The new microneedle patch was unveiled Wednesday in a paper published in the journal iScience.
Compared to traditional tattoo needles, each microneedle is smaller and does not penetrate as deeply into the skin. Prausnitz said most people describe the experience of receiving a microneedle patch injection as painless, comparing it to the rough but not uncomfortable feeling of Velcro. Microneedle patches are an emerging technology for drug delivery and vaccination, but Prausnitz’s team realized the platform could be used to easily deposit more than just drugs under the skin.
In the study, the researchers anesthetized lab rats (“Only because they squirm a lot,” Prausnitz said) and pressed microneedle patches for 15 minutes that shaped the shape of a star and a heart into a patch of shaved skin. They followed the rats for a year and found that the ink faded and the heart tattoo slightly distorted; however, these tattoos are better preserved on human skin as rats grow quickly and have a faster metabolism than humans. They also created a microneedle patch with tattoo ink on one side and an inactivated polio vaccine on the other — theoretically, Prausnitz said, this method could be used as a living health record to document an animal’s vaccination status.
Prausnitz is also working with an organization that sterilizes dogs and cats in urban areas to test microneedle tattooing as an alternative to ear clipping or marking. The tattoos that some spayed female dogs currently have are added at the end of surgery, which isn’t always cost-effective for wild animals in developing countries. So far, Prausnitz said, the tattoos have stayed on dogs and cats for at least a year.
In the future, patients may opt for tattoos to record critical medical information. “If someone might not want to wear a bracelet, but want to do it in the form of a tattoo, the benefit to the patient is very clear,” Prausnitz said — a tattoo can’t fall or be lost, and has no outward appearance.
Nevertheless, such applications raise ethical questions that need to be worked out. There is no consensus on the legality of a tattoo, such as in an infamous case of a person with a “do not resuscitate” tattoo. Microneedle ink from a person’s blood type, medical condition or instructions to health professionals falls into a gray area.
Prausnitz said he doubts microneedling patches will replace professional tattoo artists any time soon, as the patches can’t deposit ink as densely as traditional needles, nor can they cover large areas. And to avoid misspelling a mantra or permanently inking an ex’s name, future work should combine the microneedles with non-toxic ink that breaks down under the skin.
“I think a self-administered tattoo is probably best paired with a temporary ink, just in case something goes wrong,” Prausnitz said.
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