People get tattoos for all kinds of reason, such as conveying their appreciation for Japanese calligraphy or to let others at the gym know their biceps are rugged like barbed wire. But a team of MIT researchers have found a higher calling for tattoo tech: using a nanoparticle ink to monitor glucose levels in the bloodstream.
Diabetics must frequently check blood glucose levels, and managing the condition can be an exhausting experience. What if all they needed was a tattoo? Researchers have developed nanoparticle ink tattoos that continuously monitor patients and detect the moment their blood sugar goes outside the ideal range.
Some tattoos have symbolic purpose. A new breed of nano-ink embedded in the skin could have a more tangible purpose, helping diabetics continuously monitor the glucose levels in their blood in real time.
One of the main problems diabetics – and their doctors – have is continuously monitoring glucose levels. Usually, that involves several tiny pricks of the finger throughout the day to test their blood-sugar levels. This gives the patient a snapshot of where their blood sugar is right then and there, but it's often during brief periods when the blood sugar wanders outside of the normal range – right after a meal, for example – that diabetes can do its worst damage.
While there are methods of continuously monitoring glucose levels, they generally require injections into the bloodstream and are not approved for use over extended periods of time. So the MIT team went to work on something more permanent, using nanotubes wrapped in a glucose-sensitive polymer to create an "ink" that can be injected beneath the skin.
When the nano-ink is exposed to glucose it fluoresces in a way that can be detected with near-infrared light. A sensor worn on the body – something like a wristwatch – would provide the near-infrared and make sense of the fluorescing, giving the patient a simple readout of his or blood sugar in real time.
Perhaps best of all the nano-ink is temporary, probably lasting six months or so before needing to be refreshed. That's more than you can say about that tribal armband you inked onto your arm during spring break a few years back.