These Temp Tattoos Might Be Big News For Science

by Pamela J. Hobart
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Ordinarily, tattoos are cosmetic measures undertaken for aesthetic reasons only, but could they ever be more tangibly beneficial? Indeed, temporary tattoos to help chronic disease might be the new frontier in treating immune disorders, and they offer real medical benefits (as well as cosmetic ones). Depending on the patient, the cosmetic aspects may even be a big plus.

Autoimmune disorders, like multiple sclerosis, are notoriously difficult to treat. An autoimmune disorder occurs when the body attacks its own cells, having misidentified them as invaders. The goal of treatment, theoretically, is to get the body to recognize foreign cells properly, but how exactly to do this remains mysterious to scientists for now. So, currently, doctors are limited to managing the symptoms of autoimmune disorders in their patients, and to prescribing medications that suppress the immune system generally. Unfortunately, immunosuppressants also reduce the body's ability to deal with genuinely dangerous pathogens, too — leaving autoimmune patients stuck between a rock and a hard place.

A team of scientists at Baylor University, led by Christine Beeton, may have found another way. Their results, published recently in Nature's online journal Scientific Reports, suggests that a certain compound — nanoparticles treated with polyethylene glycol — may be able to target just the malfunctioning aspects of an autoimmune patient's immune system. This would allow the patient to still keep much of her immune defenses up, while alleviating the symptoms caused by the immune system components that have gone haywire.

What does any of this have to do with tattoos? The innovative nanoparticles developer at Baylor are administered to a patient subcutaneously (under her skin), where they leach out into her system over a period of about one week. And, since they're carbon-based, the particles make a visible dark spot where they're placed. As lead researcher Beeton explains to ScienceDaily:

We saw it made a black mark when we injected it, and at first we thought that's going to be a real problem if we ever take it into the clinic, but we can work around that. We can inject into an area that's hidden, or use micropattern needles and shape it. I can see doing this for a child who wants a tattoo and could never get her parents to go along. This will be a good way to convince them.

And there you have it: the possibility of therapeutic temporary tattoos for chronic autoimmune disease. The treatments (and the tattoos) last only for a little while, so you can adjust either as necessary. Perhaps doctors will prescribe these tattoo-like treatments, and artists can apply them. Whatever brings a smile to a suffering patient's face sounds like a big win to me.

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