On average, four to eight tiny dots are created in the process, depending on the disease site, says J. Isabelle Choi, MD, a board-certified radiation oncologist in New York City. During the planning phase of cancer treatment, she often finds herself downplaying the fact that permanent tattoos are a part of the process: “I always say, ‘You’re just going to feel a mosquito bite, and it looks like this freckle on my skin. It’s really small.’” 

Ultimately, these quick pinpricks help minimize discomfort during the entire treatment cycle. Explains Dr. Choi, permanent marks also limit the amount of imaging and time needed to get patients in the right position for each radiation therapy session.

Radiation oncologists have previously experimented with alternatives to permanent tattoos for radiation alignment, including with long-lasting markers, henna, and temporary tattoos. According to both Dr. Choi and Dr. Siddiqui, however, none of these has ever lasted long enough, typically disappearing after two weeks.

If positioning markings need to be redone, “we’re back at square one,” says Dr. Choi. Treatment time becomes extended, radiation exposure increases. Plus, Dr. Siddiqui points out, placing the dots even one millimeter off from the originals could lead to erroneous treatment. 

How Made-to-Fade Ink Would Improve Radiation Treatment

Traditional tattoo ink is typically made with materials your body can’t dissolve, explains Dr. Bhanusali. But Ephemeral’s ink was purposefully engineered to be safely dissolved by the body with help from bio-absorbable “materials already found in medical devices that spend a decent amount of time in skin, such as dissolvable sutures,” says Brennal Pierre, PhD, who helped invent the ink and cofounded Ephemeral. Most of the ink’s components have been approved by the Food & Drug Administration, even though, he adds, tattoo ink itself is not regulated by the FDA.

After the tattoo ink is inserted, says Dr. Bhanusali, it begins to get broken down by the body through a process called hydrolysis: The water that naturally exists in the body clings to the tattoo ink and breaks it into small molecules the body can then eliminate.

Traditionally, radiation-marking tattoos are done with a hypodermic needle. For the purpose of the study, though, Dr. Pierre and his team taught Henry Ford’s radiation therapists how to administer the tattoos the way Ephemeral has always applied its ink: with a tattoo gun. The gun is like an electric toothbrush — wireless, lightweight, and nearly silent — rather than old-school, jackhammer-type devices. 

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