Graduate Student Invents a Novel Tattoo Removal Cream – The Next Cold Fusion?
You’ve probably seen the splashy press releases on the work of Alec Falkenham, a PhD student at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Mr Falkenham has claimed to have developed a tattoo removal cream that can be applied to the skin and it will target the macrophages (specialized cells in the skin that ingest foreign material) and cause them to gobble up tattoo ink and transport them to the lymph nodes. He even says that the cost of to treat a 10 cm by 10 cm tattoo (that’s about 4 inches by 4 inches in American speak) will only cost about $4.50. He even managed to sell his invention to a company called Cipher Pharmaceuticals. Cipher specializes in new drug development and has a market cap of nearly $200 million. Sounds like this tattoo removal cream is right around the corner! Or is it?
How Science Works
Science is a method whereby hypotheses are created and then tested. The best science is peer-reviewed, meaning other scientists can review the evidence and replicate the experiments. Remember the scientists who claimed to have discovered “Cold Fusion” in 1989? Cold fusion is a way to get potentially unlimited energy without creating radioactive waste and it would solve the world’s energy needs pretty much forever. Two scientists, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, believed they had come up with a solution to the problem. They hadn’t published their paper yet on the subject, but they were so convinced that they had solved the problem they went straight to the media and gave interviews and bragged about their solution. When the paper was finally published, other scientists in the field immediately recognized that their work was sloppy and full of technical errors. Worse yet, no scientist was able to reproduce their results. Peer review and reproducibility are important steps in good science. Mr Falkenham’s claims can be found referenced in over 15,000 websites through an online search, mostly in the form of press releases, media interviews, and blogs. Peer reviewed scientific papers: none.
Let’s look at the claims that are required in order for Alec Falkenham’s tattoo removal cream to work:
- Bisphosphonates result in tattoo removal by macrophage stimulation.Let’s start with this claim. Macrophages are specialized cells in the dermis and their main function is to ingest dead cells and foreign material such as bacteria and even tattoo ink. Tattoo pigment particles were long thought to be extracellular, that is, they were just floating around in the tissues and fluids outside of the cells. However, in the past 20 years it has become clear that tattoo pigment is in fact intracellular, that is, tattoo pigment isn’t just floating around outside of our cells but actually entrapped within cells including macrophages and dermal fibroblasts. Watch this great TED talk video on tattoos and their removal. So stimulating macrophages to ingest tattoo ink isn’t actually the problem; fragmenting tattoo pigment particles into smaller fragments and actually liberating from the ingesting cells appears to be a key step in this process. Bisphosphonates are a class of drugs that are most commonly used in medicine to stimulate bone mineralization by inducing calcium to move into bones. What evidence is there that the use of biphosphonates can stimulate the removal of tattoos? A quick search on PubMed for keywords bisphosphonates+tattoo yields no results. So in a nut shell, there is NO peer-reviewed evidence that bisphosphonates can stimulate removal of tattoos. So the primary claim of using bisphosophonates to remove tattoos lacks evidence.
- Tattoo Removal by a CreamThis should be the first red flag. No cream has ever been able to remove a tattoo and there is a very good reason for this: very few topically applied substances are able to penetrate both the epidermis and the dermis. Our skin is a remarkable organ. The epithelial and dermal layers together are able to resist the absorption of all but very small non-polar (no charge) molecules. In fact, developing ways to get drugs through the skin without the use of needles has been the holy grail of drug delivery for decades. Liposomes are a substance that may improve penetration into the skin but in spite of many attempts to create liposomes that can penetrate the layers of the skin, the results have not been satisfactory enough to get rid of all those needles and syringes. How does Alec Falkenham propose to deliver his bisphosphonates? Well, with liposomes. In fact, he calls the product “Bisphosphonate Liposomal Tattoo Removal”. So there is no evidence that bisphosphonates remove tattoos and there are clearly big problems in trying to perform drug delivery by liposomes. I’m skeptical.
- All This for $4.50?I can hardly blame Mr Falkenham for being naive when it comes to the costs of packaging, marketing, and distributing new products, but the proposed price is extremely unlikely. Now that Cipher Pharmaceutics is involved, they will no doubt spend time, money, and other resources in determining if there is anything to Mr Falkenham’s tattoo removal cream but we can be assured that they won’t enter into this market with a new and novel product for a price that is cheaper than most generic drugs.
So, if I sound like a grumpy old curmudgeon full of ill will for Mr Frankenham, then you read me incorrectly; I wish nothing but the best for him and the future of this tattoo removal cream. I’m only critical of scientists with half-baked schemes going straight to the press and bragging about a product that in fact hasn’t actually been invented yet. Good science is skeptical science. In the words of the great Henry Ford, “You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do.”
UPDATE:Well, it’s been four months now since I wrote this post and since Mr Flakenham reportedly sold his idea to Cipher Pharmaceuticals. Cipher Pharmaceutical’s product pipeline page indicates the product is in pre-clinical testing. They are a very long way off from a commercial product.