In tattoo removal, it’s all about thinking backwards

SBU med school student Joseph Miccio is close to bringing a removable tattoo ink to market.

By GREGORY ZELLER // If you’ve ever wanted a tattoo but balked at that whole, you know, forever thing, hang on. Joseph Miccio is back at the drawing board.

In 2013, Miccio – then a freshman in Stony Brook University’s School of Medicine – took third place in SBU’s Dare to Risk Entrepreneurship competition with his invention of  Sonink, a tattoo ink that can be broken down by ultrasonic waves.

Although he was bested by an airtight anti-colic baby bottle and an app called “ProFound” that helps people locate lost items, the judges still liked Miccio’s colorful presentation.

Tattoo ink, the inventor noted, is an amalgam of heavy metals that sit atop the skin and are “basically too big for the immune system to remove.” Traditionally, de-tattooing involves lasers heating the ink to a point where it can be abrasively removed – “painful and costly,” Miccio said, “and you can’t always remove the whole thing.”

So the plan with Sonink is to “think backwards,” according to the inventor.

“We’re starting with an ink that’s sensitive to ultrasound without really affecting the surrounding tissue,” he said. “The goal is to have a permanent ink that lasts forever. At least until you change your mind.”

Now in his third year of med school, Miccio is still tinkering with his formula. Funding has been a challenge to this point, if only because he’s “still in the proof-of-concept phase of the research,” though the future doctor acknowledges he isn’t curing colic here.

Miccio took the $5,000 prize from the SBU contest and spent the summer of 2013 working with a volunteer graduate student and a collection of undergrads from the Garcia Center for Polymers at Engineered Interfaces, a “laboratory without walls” that unites academic, industrial and government entities with National Science Foundation funding.

They “got a lot of groundwork done” that first summer, Miccio noted, and subsequent work at SBU’s Center for Biotechnology has pushed Sonink to the brink of commercialization. With the assistance of professors Yi-Xian Qin, director of SBU’s Orthopedic Bioengineering Research Laboratory, and Richard Clark, of the university’s Dermatology Department, Miccio is now writing formal applications for new grants to fund his proof-of-concept effort.

He’s even applied to patent a basic formula he believes will ultimately redefine both the tattoo and tattoo-removal industries, both of which are on the rise. According to trend-tracker, tattoos represent a $1.6 billion annual industry in the United States, while MarketWatch reported this month that the tattoo-removal industry – in the spotlight recently because of the Apple Watch snafu – had grown by more than 440 percent over the last decade, to an estimated $75.5 million in annual revenue.

Basically, there’s a lot of money in the application and removal of body art, and Miccio thinks there will be even more when those who might be squeamish about permanency or painful reversals are counted.

Best case scenario: a market-ready product early in 2017, but that’s assuming “the stars align and everything works out and we find a partner in the industry willing to help us iron out the formulation,” Miccio noted.

“There are a lot of things in the formulation process we can tweak,” he said. “There’s a lot of things in the ultrasound we can tweak. But I’m confident that the technology is definitely doable. The proof-of-concept research is where we’re going to find that sweet spot.”

Assuming he does, Miccio realizes there’s one other thing he must do to bring the product to market: get inked.

In announcing that decision, Miccio tells the story of Australian internist Dr. Barry Marshall, who downed a broth mixed with the bacteria Helicobacter pylori to prove bacteria causes ulcers.

Sure enough, Marshall developed gastritis, biopsied his own gut and basically proved unequivocally that he was right about ulcers – a revelation that led to various stomach-cancer treatments and earned him a future Nobel Prize.

“I’m not saying I’d do anything as crazy as [Marshall],” Miccio said. “But if I’m going to be a true marketer of this ink, I guess I’m going to have to wear it.”

One of Long Island’s most prolific tattoo-preneurs agrees that Sonink has the potential to change the body-art world. Lou Rubino, who owns the seven-parlor Tattoo Lou’s chain and is himself one of the world’s busiest tattoo-ink manufacturers, said he’d “love to see it work,” but stressed that removability can’t be Sonink’s only selling point.

The only way it will fly, according to Rubino, is “if it tattoos well and looks great.”

“Otherwise, many artists may not use it,” he told Innovate-LI. “But it could really help if there was a mistake in doing a tattoo … and of course there is the ‘let me remove the name of my ex-girlfriend’ situations.”

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