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Tattoo removal may soon be as easy as applying a cream

By Rob Cypher, Feb 18, 2015 | |
  1. Rob Cypher
    How does that Sinatra song go again? "Regrets, I've had a few"? Yes, that's the one. Frank might have done it his way, but the lyric could also be the mournful anthem of the tattooed.

    Memories of an unrequited love, a name in a heart etched in technicolor on the body, or maybe that ridiculous design inked in permanently after a night on the booze. There was the guy who had huge eyes tattooed on his buttocks in an attempt to win every "Hey, fella, bet I can stare you out" challenge. From a "Where's Waldo?" behind an ear, to an elaborate snake curling round a thigh with its head disappearing into a woman's bottom, here at redOrbit we've seen them all and the regrets that go with ‘em.

    For some, the chagrin and shame is so strong that tattoo removal is the only option, which can turn out to be a painful, messy quest. The tattoo removal industry generates around $75 million each year in the United States alone, but the various procedures involved can be very unpleasant.

    BLTR: not a sandwich

    But help is on hand. Alec Falkenham, a PhD student in Pathology at Dalhousie University in Halifax has developed a pain-free solution, something called "Bisphosphonate Liposomal Tattoo Removal" (BLTR) which is basically a kind of vanishing cream – rub it on a few times and the tattoo fades.

    Sound too good to be true? Well maybe, but let's look at how it works.

    BLTR tackles the problem from a totally different angle. Instead of the most common laser-removal techniques, Falkenham's cream utilizes the skin's natural healing processes. When ink pigments enter the body during a tattoo, they are attacked by and eaten by white blood cells known as "macrophages".

    "Macrophages are known as the big eaters of the immune system," said Falkenham. "They eat foreign material, like tattoo pigment, to protect the surrounding tissue."

    According to this research, there are two kinds of macrophage at work. One set carries some of the ink's pigment to the draining lymph nodes, removing it from the area around the new tattoo. The other set, the macrophages which have "eaten" the pigment, bury themselves in your skin to form the visible tattoo.

    But over time, the second set – the macrophages that formed the tattoo – are slowly replaced. This is why tattoos fade over the years. The idea behind the removal cream is that the BLTR targets those pigment-carrying macrophages for removal. Falkenham and his team made the cream using a lipid-vesicle, or liposome, that they created specially.

    "When new macrophages come to remove the liposome from cells that once contained pigment, they also take the pigment with them to the lymph nodes, resulting in a fading tattoo," says Falkenham.

    A new kind of Trojan, and just as helpful

    The new cream should be much safer than alternative than current tattoo removal processes. The liposomes act like a kind of "Trojan horse" in their drug delivery and target those cells which can consume them, specifically those containing tattoo pigment. Any potential side effects should be restricted to the small number of non-pigmented surrounding cells.

    Falkenham worked with Dal's Industry Liaison and Innovation (ILI) office to patent his technology. Together they have secured funding through Springboard Atlantic and Innovacorp Early Stage Commercialization Fund for his research into BLTR and he is continuing to work with ILI.

    This particular scientist has a personal interest in his research. He is a tattoo lover himself. "This idea started when I got my first tattoo and I was thinking of the tattoo process from an immune point of view," explains Alec. "Since then, I have added three more and currently don't regret any of them – but that's probably a reflection on me waiting until I was older."

    Eric Hopton
    February 17, 2015



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