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Dalhousie PHD Student Makes Permanent ‘Ink’ A Thing Of The Past

Alec Falkenham doesn’t regret any of his own tattoos. But the Dalhousie University researcher wants to help those who do want to remove what’s etched in their skin.

Falkenham, a doctoral student in pathology, is working on a new method of tattoo removal based on the body’s ability to heal itself.

The product he wants to commercialize is a medicated cream that speeds up the natural process that causes tattoos to fade over time.

“What it ends up doing is causing the death of the cell that contains the tattoo pigment,” Falkenham said in an interview Friday.

The medicated cream targets a type of cell, called a macrophage, that contains ink deposits in the skin. When macrophages die, the body’s immune system responds by creating new cells.

Some of the new macrophages will absorb ink that was released when the old cells died. That pigment is carried to the lymph nodes, which already contains ink from the person’s tattoo. Other replacement macrophages form a new lawyer of skin, resulting in a less visible tattoo.

Falkenham became interested in tattoo removal three years after getting one himself for the first time.

It so happens he was starting work on his PhD research project, which involves the creation of a therapy to treat cardiovascular disease.

That research also centres around macrophages, and the Halifax native wondered whether the same principle could be used in skin cells and tattoo removal. He also discussed his idea with his doctoral supervisor, who encouraged him to pursue the side project and helped him find funding for it.

Laser removal is a popular way to get rid of unwanted tattoos, but Falkenham said his method is less damaging to skin and doesn’t involve breaking down ink.

There are removal creams on the market now but they contain chemicals that also cause skin irritation, the researcher said.

Falkenham said the product he’s working on is an improvement over both methods because it’s based on the breakdown of skin cells that occurs naturally.

“We’re accelerating the normal tattoo-healing process, which generally we don’t think of as being pro-inflammatory anyway. As your tattoo fades, your skin doesn’t get red or anything like that. ”

Falkenham has patented his product, called bisphosphonate liposomal tattoo removal, or BLTR.

But he said more research is needed to determine effective dosage and how long the product will take to work.

The project has received some early funding, including $50,000 from Innovacorp, a Crown corporation that supports startups. Springboard Atlantic, a regional commercialization and industry liaison network, has also kicked in $20,000.

Falkenham’s research is also getting support from the Halifax university’s industry liaison and innovation office, which covered patent costs.

While the drug used in the cream is already approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the United States, the cream is still a long way from clinical trials in humans, the doctoral student said.