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New device for removing birthmarks, port-wine stains, tattoos? Release is selling a pig in a poke

Laser-Based Dermatological Procedures Could Be Revolutionized with New Techniqu

Our Review Summary

This news release claims that a device being developed at the University of Missouri could revolutionize treatment to remove tattoos, birth marks and port-wine stains based only on a test on some pig skin…and that pig didn’t even have any tattoos or other markings.

The release quotes a researcher who hopes “the procedure will be available widely in the near future.” But there’s no evidence to support that statement either. While the release is peppered with claims that this device that combines laser light with ultrasound pulses will be safer and more effective, that’s not what the experiment tested. The researchers showed only that their device was able to push more laser light through a piece of pig skin than a conventional laser. Their assumption that increasing transmitted optical power will improve clinical effectiveness has yet to be tested. Neither benefits nor harms are put in numerical context. Alternatives are not mentioned. We applaud the release writers for including a link to a patent application, which provides more detail about the device and highlights potential benefits to the researchers. The release notes that the work was funded by a program to support commercialization of academic research.

 

Why This Matters

There are objective statements about research results, and then there are marketing statements in support of a product. This research was supported by a University of Missouri’s FastTrack grant. According to the university’s web site, such grants “are not to be used for basic research, but to evaluate the commercial potential of existing research.” But when journalists and others receive a news release from University of Missouri Health they should be able to trust that academic standards hold more sway than marketing interests.

Criteria

Does the news release adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

While it could be argued that the work on this combination laser-ultrasound device is at too early a stage to demand a comparison to the cost of existing laser devices, a quote in the release claims, “we’re hopeful that the procedure will be available widely in the near future,” which implies the developers must have some sense of how much their device might cost when they achieve their stated goal of commercialization.

Does the news release adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The release contains only vague claims about the technique being “extremely beneficial” and “safer, more controllable.” In fact, the researchers did not test either safety or clinical effectiveness in the experiment highlighted in the release, so it is premature to make claims of benefits.

Does the news release adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The release refers to “safety concerns” of existing laser devices, including eye damage, but there are no details about the level of risk presented by this new device. Oddly, the abstract of the conference presentation and the upcoming journal article in Lasers in Surgery and Medicine that were mentioned in the release both highlighted concerns about discoloring or burning skin, something not mentioned at all in the release.

Note: The conference abstract was behind a paywall which requires a journal subscription. A draft of the accepted journal article was provided upon request, but we urge those who send out news releases to automatically include primary source material.

Does the news release seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The release says the researchers tested their device on “porcine skin tissue samples” and claims they saw promising initial results. However, the only result reported in the conference abstract and draft journal article is an increase in the amount of light that went through the pig skin in the lab, which the authors said “implies” reduced back-scatter or absorption in the skin. No results were reported about eye damage risk or skin heating, discoloration or burning. There was no mention in the conference abstract or journal article of any test tattoos or other skin marks on the pig skin, so there is no data presented about the actual ability of the device to remove the “birthmarks, port-wine stains, tattoos” headlining the release.

Does the news release commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

The release doesn’t engage in disease mongering. It includes some context about how the new technology works.

It seems clear from the release that this device is intended to be used on the same sort of patients who currently receive laser treatments to remove tattoos or other skin markings.

Does the news release identify funding sources & disclose conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

We applaud the inclusion of a link to a patent application, which both highlights a potential benefit to the researchers and provides a great deal more detail about the device itself. The application states that the patent has been assigned to the University of Missouri, but it is reasonable to assume that commercialization of this device would benefit the careers of the researchers. The release says the research was funded by a University of Missouri program called FastTrack, which is intended to support the development and commercialization of technologies.

Does the news release compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

Although the release does include claims that this experimental device is better than existing dermatological lasers, there are no details about how, or how much, better it might be. What’s more, the release fails to mention other methods, including applying glycerol or mechanical vibration to improve laser light transmission through skin. The draft journal article cites other research into using ultrasound, but this somewhat similar technique was not mentioned in the news release.

The confusing mishmash of references to “open-air transmission” and sonoillumination is not useful to readers who don’t dig into the conference or patent application materials.

Does the news release establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

Although the release is clear that the device is not yet available, there is no support for the claim that the device, which has yet to be tested on tattoos or other skin markings, “will be available widely in the near future,” especially since clinical trials have yet to be performed.

Does the news release establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

The release mentions that lasers have been used to treat skin conditions for decades. However, it fails to note that other researchers have been looking into using ultrasound to improve laser light transmission for a number of years. Judging the release on this criterion is made harder by the muddled references to two distinct attributes of the device. The second paragraph of the release refers to reducing open-air transmission of laser light, and thus the risk of eye damage. But that statement is immediately followed by a quote about “sonoillumination.” This distinct component of the device uses ultrasound in an attempt to help the laser light pass through skin without heating it as much as conventional lasers, but that feature is explained only in the conference abstract and draft journal article. This burn risk, and how ultrasound might reduce it, is not mentioned in the release, which makes it very difficult for readers to understand just what is new about this device.

Does the news release include unjustifiable, sensational language, including in the quotes of researchers?

Not Satisfactory

The release is peppered with claims and quotes that are not supported by evidence. The headline claims that removal of birthmarks, port-wine stains and tattoos could be “revolutionized,” but the experiment did not include any testing of effectiveness on such skin markings. Claims of improved safety are also not supported by any data. Again, the experiment mentioned in the release, which was presented at a recent conference, reported results only on the optical transmission properties of pig skin samples; nothing about safety or clinical effectiveness.

Total Score: 2 of 10 Satisfactory

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