Hypodermic needles are the stuff of nightmares for many people, but they represent a common method for administering a variety of drugs. Patients who fear a needle prick, however, may soon have an alternative, painless way to receive medication. A new technique described today in the journal BMC Medicine uses a stream of gas to help deliver drugs through the skin with what subjects describe as the sensation of a gentle stream of air.

James Weaver of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his colleagues developed the novel procedure, which is known as microscission. It uses minuscule inert crystals of aluminum oxide to remove the rough outer layer of skin and create tiny holes, known as microconduits and measuring less than a quarter of a millimeter in diameter, through which medication can move. A jet of flowing gas then takes the crystals and the loosened skin away. After creating four microconduits on the inner arm of volunteers, the team applied a pad soaked in the anesthetic lidocaine. Within two minutes, the drug had worked and the subjects reported no feeling in the region.

The size and depth of the microconduits is determined by holes punched in a polymer mask laid on top of the skin. The team reports that "the onset of anesthesia takes longer in microconduits deep enough to yield blood than in shallower, nonblood producing microconduits." But deep microconduits do have some advantages. Patients suffering from diabetes, for example, often have to jab a finger to test their blood sugar; microscission could represent a less painful alternative, the team suggests.