Diabetes: High-Tech Tattoo For Monitoring Blood Sugar

Technology has once again come to the rescue of diabetics, trying to make diabetes management easier. Now researchers have given people with diabetes one more reason to join the tattoo craze: a special tattoo under development could help them monitor their blood sugar.

A research team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is developing a glucose “tattoo” that could give people with diabetes a visual track of their blood sugar, and reduce the need for the painful finger pricks required for traditional monitors.

The glucose tattoo ink, which would be injected under the skin, would be made from a substance that can reflect infrared light back through the skin to a watch-sized monitor that the person with diabetes wears over the ink. That substance is a carbon nanotube, a cylinder-shaped object much less than a hair-width in diameter and commonly used for optics and electronics applications.

“Carbon nanotubes will fluoresce in infrared light, and we can decorate the tubes so they fluoresce in response to glucose,” says senior researcher Michael Strano, the Charles and Hilda Roddey associate professor of chemical engineering at MIT.

“When you shine a light on the nanotubes, they’ll shine light back at a different wavelength to a watch-type (device) that could tell how much glucose is around,” said Strano. Right now Strano and his colleagues are testing out the technology on animals to check for unforeseen immune or allergic reactions before testing it on humans.

This is a great example of how technology is improving health care and quality of life for people with certain health care conditions. Currently, people with type 1 diabetes generally must conduct finger-prick monitoring several times a day. If they don’t stay on top of it, they can suffer uncomfortable and even dangerous symptoms stemming from their diabetes.

By having this special ink injected under their skin, and by consistently checking the small monitor worn over it, people with diabetes can get a “real-time” feed on their glucose. They can note and take action when they see their blood sugar climbing or dropping; they don’t have to wait until they can get to a convenient place to conduct a finger prick or, worse, until they start to feel ill.

The device also opens up an avenue of thought: if special ink can alert people with diabetes to dropping glucose levels, could an automatic, implanted glucose dispenser or pump be far behind? It’s interesting to ponder how technology – much of which, like the carbon nanotubes, already exist for other uses – can help us maybe not cure diseases like diabetes, but at least treat them in a way that takes the burden off the patient. What ideas do you have?

Thank you Alisa Ulferts

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