Johnny Depp’s tattoo didn’t always say “Wino Forever.” It originally proclaimed “Winona Forever” during his ill-fated engagement to Winona Ryder. If only Johnny had gotten inked 25 years later and had known Bruce Klitzman, Ph.D., that tattoo wouldn’t be a story.

Klitzman, a Duke University associate professor of surgery, biomedical engineering, and cell biology, developed erasable tattoo ink that could have made tattoo buyer’s remorse obsolete. His team, including Harvard University collaborators, focused on making tattoo removal easier without relying on the traditional laser removal method.

“We asked ourselves how we could erase tattoos. Instead of coming up with a more powerful laser, we thought of removing pencil instead of pen,” he said. “That meant the best strategy would be focusing on the ink to make it susceptible to removal. Focus on the ink instead of its eraser.”

With up to 50 percent of tattoo owners eventually regretting the body art, Klitzman saw potential for a successful company, and he called it Option Technologies, Inc.

With his team, Klitzman used his microencapsulation expertise to design an ink that remains intact until the client seeks removal. Klitzman has also used microencapsulation to treat glaucoma, the second-leading blindness cause globally.

Microencapsulation – a process that wraps tiny particles in an outer layer – is the trick to erasable ink, he said. Effectively, the ink is like an M&M candy. Warm chocolate remains inside the candy shell until the coating breaks, and ink stays inside its polymer casing until a single laser treatment breaks the capsules. After rupture, the ink degrades naturally over three, six, or 12 months.

Initial tests in the early 2000s showed the ink worked well, Klitzman said, and investor interest was high. But the 2007 economic downturn prevented the product from reaching the market. Instead, the team sold the microencapsulation technology to, a company that used it to encapsulate food extracts. The ink is also used in fluorescent tattoos on fish, helping the wildlife industry track fish migration.

Klitzman’s expertise with microencapsulation, as well as blood supply and tissues, also contributed to two innovations with glaucoma.

“We have devices that put glaucoma medication in the eyes, and some patients respond well. But there’s a considerable percentage that don’t, and they need drainage devices,” he said. “The body, though, recognizes these devices as foreign objects and encapsulates them. They’ll work well for weeks, but then they don’t drain well anymore.”

Klitzman’s team solved this problem by coating existing glaucoma drains in porous plastic that conforms to the shape of the eye. The result: proper drainage and blood vessel development, as well as no scarring.

Additionally, he’s worked with former student Lucinda Camras, Ph.D., and her company Camras Vision to perfect a drainage tube that lets fluid seep from front of the eye rather than the back. Together, they created a filter with microscopic holes large enough for water to leave the eye, but small enough to prevent bacteria from traveling in.

Along the way, he said, Duke was a helpful partner that allowed him leeway.

“Duke’s heart is in the right place. The University helps in many places, and it gives the inventor the power to carry the ball and run with it,” Klitzman said. “They often collaborate with the inventor to identify the right companies to contact when it comes to licensing technology.”

To read about more Duke Entrepreneurs, click here.

By Whitney L.J. Howell