By Tom Blackwell
[caption id="21372" align="aligncenter" width="620"] A tattoo machine can target Leishmania cells just below the surface of the sore, depositing the drug — instead of ink — into the bottom of the little holes it creates, far less painfully than a hypodermic needle.[/caption]
Mention tattooing and health in the same sentence, and chances are the topic is one of the nasty infectious diseases — from HIV to Hep C — that can be transmitted by dirty needles.
A new Canadian study, though, may be about to change that image, suggesting that tattooing equipment could actually be an effective new way to combat an array of skin conditions, penetrating deep enough to deliver drugs to the right cells, but not so far that the needle prods sensitive nerves.
The just-published research found evidence that tattooing could greatly improve treatment for cutaneous leishmaniasis, a parasite that leaves millions of people worldwide with disfiguring, and often emotionally devastating, facial sores. It affects mainly developing countries, but even Canadian soldiers returning from Afghanistan have contracted the illness.
The technology, though, could eventually have application in treating skin cancer, psoriasis and other ailments, speculates the scientist behind the project.
[caption id="21373" align="aligncenter" width="620"] An Afghan receives treatment for a tropical skin disease. The Afghan capital, Kabul, has one of the highest concentrations of the disfiguring skin disease, Cutaneous leishmaniasis, which is a parasitic disease transmitted by the phlebotomine sand fly. Majid Saeedi/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 104492714[/caption]
“We were extremely excited, very surprised [at the success of the experiment],” said Anny Fortin, a biochemist who did the work at McGill University. “If you think about it, it’s logical that it works.… But we were amazed.”
She cautioned that the initial study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, was conducted on mice, so there is no guarantee the results will translate into humans. The next step is further drug-tattooing work on pigs, whose skin is closer to that of people, and then to try the technique on humans if the animal research is successful.
[caption id="21374" align="aligncenter" width="620"] A tattoo artist works on a tattoo.[/caption]
Ms. Fortin said she came up with the idea after talking to a colleague who works for a company that makes tattooing equipment for applying permanent makeup. She obtained funding to explore the novel idea from Grand Challenges Canada — a federally funded agency that finances research on affordable innovations to attack health threats in poor countries.
Leishmaniasis, it turns out, is ripe for some kind of new approach. Caused by a parasite that sand flies transmit, the most dangerous form attacks internal organs and can be fatal.
The more common cutaneous version will not kill, but leaves patients with stigma-inducing ulcers on their faces, sometimes making it difficult for them to find a spouse or otherwise affecting their lives deeply. An estimated 1.5 million new cases are recorded yearly.
None of the current treatment options are ideal. One drug can be administered systemically, but the intramuscular injections — one a day for a month — are toxic and painful. Hypodermics are also used to deliver the same drug directly into the lesion, also extremely painful.
“I’ve seen children being treated, six people were needed to immobilize the child and this little kid was screaming like crazy,” said Ms. Fortin.
The tattooing machine targets Leishmania cells just below the surface of the sore, depositing the drug — instead of ink — into the bottom of the little holes it creates, far less painfully than a hypodermic needle. Ironically, it acts in much the same way as the fly injects the parasite when it bites someone, said Ms. Fortin.
Her study compared treatment of ulcers in mice using the tattooing gear, versus the intramuscular injections, and a topical ointment applied on the ulcer. The tattoo method was the most effective in all cases, clearing up the lesions completely, the study reported.
It is possible the heat generated by the tattooing also helps, triggering inflammation that brings immune cells to attack the pathogen, said Prof. Uzonna.
Ms. Fortin said she is now trying to obtain another round of Grand Challenges funding, which would require her to find matching grants from other sources.
"It’s logical that it works…. But we were amazed"