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Laser-Based Dermatological Procedures Could be Revolutionized with New Technique

MU interdisciplinary team develops system for removal of birthmarks, port-wine stains, tattoos

April 10, 2017

Story Contact(s):
Jeff Sossamon,, 573-882-3346

COLUMBIA, Mo. – The first laser treatments used to treat skin conditions such as benign vascular birthmarks and port-wine stains were developed more than 40 years ago. Since then, clinicians and dermatologists have seen a rise in demand for minimally invasive laser-based treatments, including tattoo removal. However, it is difficult for the laser light, which is held at a distance from the skin, to be perfectly and selectively absorbed by only the targeted birthmark or tattoo. Now, researchers from the University of Missouri have developed instruments that not only transmit laser light into the tissue through direct contact, but could also improve the efficacy of the transmission through the tissue to the target, thus making individual treatments more effective. Additionally, the techniques developed by the interdisciplinary team can be used by dermatologists to reduce safety concerns in laser dermatology practices by improving how laser transmission occurs through surface layers of the skin.

Laser techniques come with risks, including eye damage. Open-air transmission, in which the clinician holds the laser at a distance from the patient, is typical during normal dermatological procedures and presents a hazard to both the patients’ and doctors’ eyes. Paul J.D. Whiteside, who recently received his doctoral degree in MU’s bioengineering program, invented a system to improve the process to make it safer for both clinicians and patients. Whiteside devised the contact-based transmission system while performing graduate research with John Viator, formerly an MU associate professor of bioengineering and Whiteside’s  graduate advisor, Randy Curry, the Logan Distinguished Professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Heather K. Hunt, assistant professor of bioengineering, who both served on Whiteside’s M.S. thesis committee, along with fellow graduate student Benjamin S. Goldschmidt, who is now an assistant professor at Duquesne University.

Whiteside, Curry and Nicholas Golda, associate professor of dermatology and director of dermatology surgery at the MU School of Medicine, were the first to demonstrate that plasmonic waveguide technology could be promising. However, while improving safety was a key concern, Whiteside and Hunt, who later became Whiteside’s doctoral advisor, wanted to improve the efficacy of the treatment as well.

“The latest system we developed uses ultrasonic pulsation in conjunction with contact-based transmission from a clinical laser to alter the properties of skin tissues during the procedure,” Whiteside said. “We’ve named the technique ‘sonoillumination,’ and we’re hopeful that the procedure will be available widely in the near future.”  The combination of the contact-based transmission system with ultrasonic pulsation was a winning combination.  Using various amplitudes and pulses, the instruments that have been developed were tested on porcine skin samples and showed great promise for the clinical setting.

Whiteside presented his technique to clinicians on April 9, 2017, at the annual conference of American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery (ASLMS).

“Pork skin samples are very close to human skin samples, so the initial results we saw are promising for human applications,” Hunt said. “‘Sonoillumination’ will be extremely beneficial for clinicians and the ASLMS presentation allowed us to demonstrate the system to the people who actually will be using the technology once it’s commercialized.”

Golda echoed the merits of the sonoillumination system and the effect it will have on dermatology.

“Our goal is to provide patients with safer, more effective treatment options that potentially lower the number of treatments needed,” Golda said. “This new technology may also provide physicians with a safer, more controllable option for treating patients.”

Whiteside, Golda and Hunt co-authored the paper, “Ultrasonic modulation of tissue optical properties in ex vivo porcine skin to improve transmitted transdermal laser intensity,” which recently was published by the ASLMS journal, Lasers in Surgery and Medicine. Initial funding for developing the contact-based transmission portion of the technology was provided by the MU Coulter Translational Partnership program. The sonoillumination research was funded in part by a 2015 Fast Track grant from the University of Missouri System.

The team is hopeful of either licensing this technology to an existing company or of developing a start-up company to commercialize the technique. This commercialization effort is representative of the University’s impact on the state’s economic development efforts, including commercialization of research conducted at Mizzou, workforce development and job growth, quality of life improvements for residents, and attracting corporations and businesses to the state. Over the last five years, companies commercializing MU technologies have secured hundreds of millions of dollars in investments and grants to advance their commercialization efforts. In 2016, the Office of Technology Management and Industry Relations reported that Mizzou received $14.9 million in revenue from more than 40 technology licenses.

The MU bioengineering department is jointly affiliated with the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR) and the College of Engineering.