If PhD student Alex Falkenham is successful, removing tattoos may be easier than getting them in the first place. The Dalhousie University (in Nova Scotia, Canada) PhD candidate has been developing a cream to remove tattoos.
How are Tattoos Permanent?
Tattoos have a history which spans millenia. The introduction of pigmented inks into the deeper skin (the dermis) has been done in virtually every culture in every part of the world. Why a tattoo is permanent is a cool description of the body’s immune response to trauma. When the ink is injected through the epidermis (outer skin) and into the dermis, the body responds to the trauma by initiating the inflammatory cascade. This means that the white blood cells responsible for fighting infections, initiating wound healing, and repairing tissues are called to the scene of the tattoo. One of the most important cells are macrophages. These are larger white blood cells which act as a central contractor in the wound directing other cells to do their jobs. Macrophages also have the ability to eat (or phagocytose) the ink pigments. Some of these macrophages carry the ink away to the lymph nodes but many also remain in the skin, lying dormant and keeping the tattoo visible through the transparent epidermis. Over time the tattoo may fade as the dormant cells leave or die, but for the most part the tattoo is permanent.
How do you get rid of “I ♥ Kelly?”
Removal of tattoos has traditionally been done in two ways – cut out the skin with the tattoo, or use different lasers to break up the pigment. Cutting them out is simple enough, but this will leave a permanent scar and is not a great remedy for most tattoos due to size or location. Lasers work by targeting the absorption spectrum of the pigment in the tattoo. By delivering this frequency of light, the pigment fragments and is removed by the immune system. This process is the most common but is time consuming, often taking multiple sessions, and costly. In the US last year, over $75 million dollars were spent removing tattoos.
Tattoo Removal Made Easy
What if you could simply rub a cream on a tattoo and watch it disappear? Sound too good to be true? Well, if Alex Falkenham’s approach works, a $4 cream may be just around the corner. Mr. Falkenham’s idea is to clear out the pigment laden macrophages in the skin by a clever use of compounds known as bisphosphonate liposomes. “Of course!” you say, “how could I have missed this?”
His details aren’t clear, but here’s my understanding of how this works:
Bisphosphonates are neat little chemicals containing two (bis) phosphate groups and are used commonly to deactivate osteoclasts to prevent bone loss. Osteoclasts are cells which break down the calcium structure of bone. Bisphosphonates work by being eaten by these osteoclasts and either suppress cell activity or trigger cell death (apoptosis). Thus, people will take bisphosphonates to prevent osteoporosis. What does this have to do with tattoos? Macrophages are very similar to osteoclasts. When a macrophage encounters a bisphosphonate, it phagocystoses (eats) the bisphosphonate and often undergoes apoptosis (cell death). The cell wall breaks down and a new macrophage will come along and clean up the mess left over. If you deliver bisphosphonates to the macrophages in the skin which contain the tattoo pigment, you can kill the cell, release the pigment, and have another macrophage come along and remove the pigment to the lymphatic system and out of the skin. Voila! No more tattoo! But how do you deliver the bisphosphonate to the macrophages you wish to destroy? Use a liposomal carrier. Liposomes are lipid structures in which you can place the bisphophonate chemical. Lipids do a good job of penetrating the skin (which is why you see so many “lipid formulations” for skin products). When these liposomes are encountered by the macrophages in the skin they are consumed and the bisphosphonate can have its effect on the cell. Destruction of the cell will release the pigment and another macrophage can come along, consume the pigment, and carry it away to the lymphatic tree.
Falkenham states this a little more simply:
“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.”
Although the specifics are hazy, the bottom line is re-engaging the macrophages to remove the pigment rather than having them stay dormant in the area of the tattoo. Falkenham notes that this technique is quite specific to the pigment containing macrophages and should not affect the normal skin cells in the vicinity. Unlike lasers which can have significant collateral damage, this is a targeted therapy to the pigment containing cells.
What does it all mean?
The research regarding this new method of tattoo removal is in the early stages. There is no research paper, no human trials, and minimal data. Up to now, he has been working on tattoos on pig ears. Regardless, if the results are as promising as he states, we may finally have a cheap solution to an often drunken and remorseful problem.