New cream painlessly removes tattoos

PhD student Alec Falkenham, inventor of the cream, studies a book of tattoos (Photo: Bruce Bottomley photos)

As more people get tattooed, more of those people regret having done so. The tattoo removal business is huge, generating around $75 million in the US alone. Laser ablation is the most common removal method, but now a 27-year-old PhD student in Canada has come up with a cream that promises a gentler, safer method to get rid of undesired tattoos.

Developed by Alec Falkenham, a PhD student in Pathology at Dalhousie University, the new removal solution is called Bisphosphonate Liposomal Tattoo Removal (BLTR).

The inspiration came from the body’s immune system and its reaction to tattoo ink. It involves the macrophages, white blood cells that eat foreign material to protect surrounding tissue from invaders. Known as the big eaters of the immune system, they consume the tattoo ink that settles into the skin.

In the case of tattoos, two types of macrophages go into action. One set takes part of the pigment to the draining lymph nodes, removing it from the area where it was applied. The other set that has eaten the pigment goes deeper into the skin and forms the visible tattoo.

Over time, the macrophages that form the tattoo are replaced by new ones, causing the design to fade and blur. BLTR homes in on the macrophages that contain the pigment, using a liposome created by Falkenham’s team. Liposomes are artificial vesicles often used as vehicles to administer nutrients and pharmaceutical drugs.

"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. This also results in a more targeted removal process, with a smaller chance of affecting the surrounding cells that do not contain pigment.

Falkenham’s team used a similar composition to the cream to evaluate its effectiveness in vitro. Based on a tattoo of around 25 sq cm (nearly four sq in), the amount of the active drug was set at less than 1/1000 of the amount used in chemotherapy patients in a day.

Other tests identified seven days as the ideal interval for applications. By applying the cream twice at seven-day intervals the researchers obtained dramatic reductions in the amount of ink in the skin relative to control treatment, Falkenham tells Gizmag. The team will carry out further tests to evaluate the product.

At the time of writing this article, there was no estimate as to when a commercial version of the cream would be available, nor how much it will cost.

"In terms of making it in the lab, it costs us less than $4.50 for a treatment on a 100 sq. cm tattoo (around 15 sq. inches). We’d expect that cost to come down if we were to scale up for commercialization. As for how much someone would charge, it’s too difficult to speculate," he adds.

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