New macrophage cream promises cheap painless tattoo removal

Tattoos are seeping through society like spilled Indian ink. They’re on arms, legs, backs, necks, faces, feet: a fashion accessory du jour.

Once though, tattoos had cultural and religious significance. When they did enjoy fashion status it was only a coterie who nobody really wanted to know – seamen, pirates, bikers. And the Nazi identification system for concentration camp inmates made tattoos repulsive for post war generations.

Cher’s fishnet and tattoo performance in the 1989 video for her song If I Could Turn Back Time introduced the tramp stamp to the world. She shocked  some, delighted more. Cut to 2015 and Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson, Iggy Azalea, David Beckham, Pink, Brad Pitt, Lady GaGa, Mike Tyson … Celebrities bad, bold and beautiful seem to be wearing words and pictures.

There is so much ink about that surely we’ve reached peak tattoo? The fashion must be teetering on the edge of becoming passe.

And what to do with old tattoos? Invisible ink they were not; old people cautioned the incautious young that a tattoo was for life. They could not be thrown out like an old mini dress, flared jeans, power shoulder blazer or Crocs.

(Angelina Jolie had the name of one of her husbands, Billy Bob Thornton, tattooed on her arm but had it lasered after they broke up. She now wears her children’s names.)

But hope springs eternal on the human breast, bicep, forearm, shoulder, neck, stomach, calf, foot, face …

Now a PhD candidate in Nova Scotia has developed a tattoo removal cream that is both cheap – $4 an application – and hurts less then traditional methods because the ink just fades away gradually.

“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,” Alec Falkenham told Canadian media.

“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.”

Falkenham dreamed up the cream three years ago when thinking about getting a tattoo and working on doctorate on heart disease.

He realised that the immune system cells he had been researching to help heal the heart following heart disease – macrophages – were the same cells that hold on to tattoo ink.

Macrophages eat foreign agents that enter someone’s body – like tattoo ink.

Some carry some of the ink to the lymph nodes for destruction, where both the cells and ink are destroyed. Others stay in the skin holding the ink and make the tattoo colour.

All  tattoos fade as new macrophages chomp up old ink-bearing colleagues and Falkenham said his cream stimulated the natural replacement process, causing tattoos to fade rapidly.

Removing a tattoo is more difficult, more expensive, and probably more painful than getting one, but if Falkenham’s cream works it should be a financial bonanza.

Research at his Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia estimated between 15 to 25 per cent of north Americans have at least one tattoo – and 17 per cent have thought about getting rid of them.

A Gold Coast tattooist’s newsletter claimed 22 per cent of Australian men and 29 nine per cent of women between 20-29 have at least one tattoo. Overall, men are still more likely to be tattooed than women, although this is levelling.

No word on whether any had regrets.

But Andrea McCormick, manager of health and life sciences at Dalhousie University said it was early days.

“His initial research has shown great results and his next stage of research will build on those results, developing his technology into a product that can eventually be brought to market.”