A group from France has published a paper last week in the journal Scientific Reports in which they have successfully used tattooing as the means to deliver a drug beneath the skin of a rat. The animal was infected by the microbe leishamania, which attacks cells underneath the skin. Conventional methods such as applying ointments on the skin or swallowing a pill will not work since the area of infection is not easily reached. Hence their idea of using a tattoo pin containing the antimicrobial drug. Reading about this method brought back the famous French saying “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose” or “the more it changes, the more it remains the same”

Tattoo, or tatau as the original Polynesian word has it, has been a time-honoured practice among many civilizations for millennia. Wikipedia tells us that a naturalist accompanying Captain Cook in his voyages of the 1770s described this practice in his records and mis-spelt it as tattoo, more suited to the Western way of pronunciation. The Chinese have been doing it, and so have the Egyptians and of course we in India. (As a child in Sholavandan, I recall watching specialists coming over to tattoo and brand cows and bulls). We not only use it to brand cattle but also men and women. A quick glance through Wikipedia also tells us about the detailed work of the Indian anthropologist, Dr. S.K. Baruah, who has described the sociological aspects of tattooing in Northeast India, particularly among the Apatani tribes of Arunachal Pradesh.

Tattooing has been done for a variety of purposes — as rites of passage, to mark the coming of age of a youngster into adulthood, and also both as a cosmetic (to enhance beauty) and as a disfigurement to mar the beauty of a girl. Polynesians distinguished tribes and sub-tribes using tattoo marks. Indeed the Nazis in Hitler’s Germany too tattooed Jews for identification, and also to distinguish people with various blood groups. Analysis of the mummies in Luxor in Egypt reveals extensive tattoo marks in the bodies of their kings and queens, thus establishing it to be a long practiced art.

This millennia-old practice of tattooing has come back to today’s “hep crowd” as a mark of fashion. One sees movie actors and sportspersons flash not only their muscles and “carbs” but their tattoos as well. Hi-tech provides not only the pins to pierce the skin but even laser knives (Einstein, the originator of the idea of lasers, would have been intrigued, were he alive today).

Tattoo is by and large used for three major purposes: cosmetics, as identification marks and for medicinal purposes. The French work mentioned above is not that original an idea, but the latest example which succeeded in curing the rat of microbial infection. The drug used, called oleylphosphocholine, does not pass through the skin and go to the cutaneous region where the microbe has infected, hence the use of a tattoo pin containing the drug. In an earlier example nine years ago, a group from Holland was able to deliver DNA molecules beneath the skin, using tattoo methods, in order to vaccinate an animal.

Both these examples appear to follow the tradition of tattooing as medical practice. Recall the excitement about 23 years ago when “Otzi the ice man” was found in the Italian Alps? Detailed examination of his clothing, tools and arms he carried, and his body has provided considerable information about how this man of prehistoric times (3000-3500 BC) lost his way crossing the Alps and lost his life in the bitter cold. The National Geographic magazine had an extensive coverage of Otzi in its November 2011 issue. What is interesting in the present context is the finding of as many 57 tattoo lines on his body. Analysis of the places and pattern of these tattoo marks has suggested them to cover areas in his body most likely affected by arthritis. It would thus appear that Otzi was treated using the tattoo method, though it is not clear whether any drugs or similar substances were delivered through the tattoo needle.

The Chinese have of course practiced the method of acupuncture as a medical treatment practice since ancient times. They seem to have identified various specific locations in the body which respond in chosen manner to the puncturing needle. There is some growing evidence that some of these spots, when so excited, release neurochemicals that affect the body chemistry. Ancient India too appears to have attempted a similar practice. The Charaka Samhita apparently mentions a procedure termed needling and burning; whether this was a tattoo method of medical treatment is not clear. The current French and Dutch work appear to involve using not solid needles but hollow ones to contain the drug for delivery in an efficient manner; the fact that it works makes this little innovation not a hollow claim!



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