Oops. That dolphin tattoo on the small of your back, the misspelled declaration of "love forevre," that tribal symbol your ex convinced you to ink on your bicep – that wasn't a good idea after all.
Anyone with a regrettable tattoo (and there are many of you out there) has typically had limited options: either dress in long sleeves and turtlenecks year round, add more ink to cover up your original mistake, or fork over big bucks and grit your teeth for multiple laser tattoo removal sessions.
Now, Alec Falkenham at Dalhousie University has come up with a clever alternative solution. The PhD student of pathology has created a skin cream that relies on the body's own white blood cells, called macrophages, to remove tattoo pigment.
"Relative to laser-based therapies which can take, you know, well over a year and cost thousands of dollars, what we've kind of created is a low-cost solution" that costs less than a nickel for each square centimetre of skin to produce, Falkenham says. (It's too early, though, to say how much it will cost consumers.)
Macrophages are the immune system's "big eaters" (literally, that's what their name means), which eat up foreign substances, including tattoo ink, to protect surrounding tissue. When you get a tattoo, Falkenham explains, two populations of macrophages go to work: The first takes some of the ink and delivers it to the lymph nodes for removal, while the second (for reasons that scientists don't fully understand) stays in the skin and holds on to the ink, which is what makes the tattoo permanent.
Falkenham's technology, called bisphosphonate liposomal tattoo removal (or BLRT), targets this second population of macrophages, by delivering them a "Trojan horse," he explains.
"Similar to the way a macrophage eats up the tattoo ink, it eats up our Trojan horse, which carries a drug inside," he says.
That drug kills off the macrophages, causing them to release the tattoo ink. New macrophages then come in to eat up that ink again, including another influx of the type that will deliver the ink to the lymph nodes for removal.
Although the therapy is still in early stages of development, Falkenham anticipates the cream would need to be applied once a week and would likely take a couple of months to remove a tattoo. So far, tests conducted on mice have shown no side effects, such as dry skin or irritation.
Falkenham received a patent for the technology in September, and he's now working on bringing the cream to market. In the next few weeks, he'll be preparing to test his invention on pigs that have had their ears tattooed for identification shortly after birth, as pig skin is similar to humans. And eventually, he'll seek funding and necessary approvals to conduct clinical trials.
Until then, it's probably a good idea to put off getting that next tattoo until you're really, really sure.