Backtracking on an ill-advised dragon or butterfly may get a little easier if a new cream developed by a researcher at Dalhousie University goes to market — a product that evolved from the PhD student's work on healing the heart after an injury.

Cipher Pharmaceuticals, based in Ontario, has licensed the rights to develop and market a topical cream created by PhD student Alec Falkenham.

"This technology has the potential to transform the process of tattoo removal and may give people the option of a topical cream instead of laser treatments, which are painful, costly and time consuming," company president and CEO Shawn O'Brien said in a release.

Side project during PhD

Falkenham, 29, who's in the pathology department at the Nova Scotia university, invented the product while conducting research on the processes that allow the heart to heal after injury. He worked on the tattoo cream as a side project to his thesis research, modifying a heart drug to increase the turnover of cells in tattoos. 

"It's incredible, something I wouldn't have expected four years ago when I came up with the idea," he said Tuesday. 

After someone gets a tattoo, the ink initiates an immune response and white blood cells called "macrophages" carry some of the ink to the body's lymph nodes.

But some of those macrophages that are filled with pigment stay put, embedded in the skin. That's what makes the tattoo visible under the skin.

Clayton Roberts' CBC Tattoo Close-Up

So far the tattoo cream has only been tested on animals, but it aims to penetrate the skin and destroy cells that gather and absorb pigment after it is injected into the skin. (Markus Schwabe)

Targeting immune response

Falkenham says other tattoo removal creams are more chemically abrasive, centred on removing layers of skin. 

His cream is designed to destroy the pigment-filled cells that have remained at the site of the tattoo.

"Over time, the repetitive process of this actually results in tattoo ink being removed from the skin," he said.

Testing so far has been limited to pigs and mice, but he doesn't expect people would feel any irritation.

Company could patent cream 

He says though it's still in the early stages of development, there has been some evidence of a tattoo removed within one week. 

"Potentially with some improvements it could be faster than that. There's still a lot of unanswered questions," he said. 

Dalhousie University has now licensed the technology to Cipher, and it will be up to the company to decide whether to obtain patents and take it to market. 

Ongoing input

Falkenham says it's too early to say when the product would be available to sell, but he plans to stay involved in the project through quarterly meetings with the company. The deal came with an up-front payment and the contract included a royalty structure should the cream be approved and commercialized. 

As for what's next, Falkenham plans to defend his thesis this summer and is on the wait list for Dalhousie's medical school.  

Though he sees a need for the product, he wasn't personally motivated by regret. 

"I'm still content with my own tattoos," he said with a laugh.