(Source: Bigstock)
Still being perfected in animal models, the cream could eventually replace laser removal technology

For anyone who acquired a tattoo in their wild days of youth and now want it gone, modern medicine could soon have a far cheaper and less painful solution than current cures.

A new solution is in the works at Nova Scotia's Dalhousie University, a public research college whose primary campus is located in the peninsular province's capital city of Halifax.  Alex Falkenham, a Ph.D candidate in the university's Pathology Department has developed a simple topical cream that could be applied to trigger a patient's immune system to remove tattoos.

Traditional tattoo removal uses lasers to break up the inks.  But that's time consuming, can produce skin damage, and is expensive.  A better solution could be a lucrative prospect -- the tattoo removal market in the U.S. last year was estimated to be worth $75.5M USD, according to a recent IBISWorld research report.

Dalhousie University
The new technology was developed at Nova Scotia, Canada's Dalhousie University. [Image Source: Robb Powell (top); La Mejor (bottom)]

Falkenham believes he's found that better answer to this common problem.  He calls his technology Bisphosphonate Liposomal Tattoo Removal -- or BLTR for short.

Alex Falkenham could revolutionize the tattoo-removal market with his new cream-based system.
[Image Source: Dal News]

Tattoos -- self-marking with inks -- are as old as mankind's written history.  But the science behind them is somewhat complex.  Basically, when you inject the skin wth inks/dyes, special roaming immune cells called macrophages move in to try to eat the foreign chemical and clean up the mess.  This is part of what causes the skin inflammation that often occurs after getting a tattoo.

Once they've eaten the pigment, some macrophages successfully eliminate a fraction of it from the body.  These cells migrate to the lymphatic system, where they are eventually broken down and flushed out.  But others eat a lot of dye and get stuck in the subcutaneous layer, falling dormant. Safely housed in these immune cells, the finished tattoo's pigmentation effect is complete.  Of course, this isn't entirely permanent.  Over time the ink-laden macrophages can dye and the process of lymphatic flushing continues, albeit at a slower pace.  This is why tattoos fade with time.

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

The idea behind BLTR is simple.  What if you could somehow add a chemical to the dye-laden macrophages to contain the dye, allowing the immune cells to free themselves and flush into the lymphatic system.  Falkenham's cream contains a special fatty compound known as a lipid, which penetrates the skin, seeping into macrophages.  As it permeates the macrophages it forms small vesicles known as liposomes, which suck up the dye.

Falkenham tells how the next step works, stating:

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.

Tattoo cream
Falkenham has received funding to perfect the cream and prepare it for commercialization.
[Image Source:]

The key to the cream's safety and efficacy is that macrophages -- the dye carriers -- suck up the liposomes, while most other cells ignore them.  The inventor comments to the CBC:

When comparing it to laser-based tattoo removal, in which you see the burns, the scarring, the blisters, in this case, we've designed a drug that doesn't really have much off-target effect.

We're not targeting any of the normal skin cells, so you won't see a lot of inflammation. In fact, based on the process that we're actually using, we don't think there will be any inflammation at all and it would actually be anti-inflammatory.

The student has received early stage commercialization funding from Springboard Atlantic and Innovacorp's Early Stage Commercialization Fund to continue the work and advance it towards the market.

The cream is expected to work best on tattoos that are two years old or more, as at that point the tissue has fully healed, better allowing the liposomes to penetrate the tattoo tissue and the liposomes housed therein.  Given that it uses relatively simple chemicals, it's expected to be relatively inexpensive.  

Falkenham estimates that it will cost rough 4.5 pennies per square centimeter (roughly 29 cents per square inch) -- or roughly $4.50 USD for a small 10 x 10 cm (3.9 x 3.9 in.) tattoo.  That stacks up favorable to costs between hundreds to thousands of dollars for a multi-session tattoo removal with laser methods.

laser tattoo removal
Laser tattoo removal is expensive and can be painful.  It also carries medical risks.
[Image Source: Advanced Medical Systems]

There may be similar sounding creams marketed to those with tattoos, but the Mayo Clinic warns, though, that most of these current generation skincare products lack the rigorous scientific development process of the cream being developed in Nova Scotia.  Off-the-shelf tattoo lightening creams are unproven at best and carry substantial irritation risks.

As for Falkenham's cream, work still needs to be done to perfect the cream, test its safety in human trials, and determine how many applications will be necessary to fully remove a tattoo.  Currently Falkenham is testing the cream on tattoos on the ears of pigs, a species whose tissues are relatively similar to humans.

The young inventor admits that his invention was inspired by his own dabblings in getting inked.  But he isn't interested in getting those removed quite yet.  He comments in a press release:

This idea started when I got my first tattoo and I was thinking of the tattoo process from an immune point of view.  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.

And in case he does change his mind, he'll hopefully soon have the tools to make ink tattoos as removeable as childrens' temporary tattoos.  All it will take is a tub of skin cream.

Sources: Dalhousie University [press release],

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