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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Lifeboat Foundation > Detecting Disease by Tattoo

Summer Johnson
Lifeboat Foundation

If you ever swore to your self (or to another) that you'd never get a tattoo, you may just want to reconsider. You may within just a couple of years have a very good reason to get one made out of "nanoink".

March 21st, 2009

Detecting Disease by Tattoo

If you ever swore to your self (or to another) that you'd never get a tattoo, you may just want to reconsider. You may within just a couple of years have a very good reason to get one made out of "nanoink".

As recently reported on Discovery News, "nanoink" allows for monitoring blood glucose in real-time right under the skin. It does so by using a hydrophobic nanoparticle that changes colors as glucose levels rise and fall. The ink consists of a glucose-detecting molecule, a color changing dye and a molecule that mimics glucose. These three particles continuously swish around in side a 120-nm orb. When glucose is present, the glucose-detecting molecule attaches and glows yellow; if absent, the ink turns orange.

The use of this technology has the advantage over traditional glucose monitoring, of course, in that there is a one-time needle stick for placing the tattoo over the tens of thousands of sticks that a diabetic will have to have over a lifetime.

Another advantage of nanoink tattooing: they can be removed. At least one researcher from Brown University has developed tattoo ink with microencapsulated beads coated with a polymer that when broken with a single laser treatment can simply be expelled from the body, as opposed to multiple laser removal treatments for conventional tattoos.

Diabetes isn't the only disease candidate for using this technology. The original research involving nanoink tattoos was for monitoring sodium levels in the body, but then it occurred to researchers that glucose could be infinitely more useful as a disease target. The potential uses for "nanoink" as a monitoring technology are almost limitless; for chronic disease monitoring, once the concept can be proven to work for more complex molecules such as glucose, almost any disease could be monitored from heart disease to hyperthyroid to various blood disorders.

According to the researchers at Draper Laboratories studying this technology, the tattoo doesn't have to be a huge Tweety bird on your ankle or heart on your shoulder; in fact, according to one of the Draper researchers, the tattoo could be just a "few millimeters in size and wouldn't have to go as deep as a normal tattoo" . Disease monitoring nano-tattoos, therefore, can be both tiny and painless. Of course, they could be stylish, too, but the nanoink is likely to cost a pretty penny---so before you are imagine a giant tribal arm stamp to monitor your heart disease, you may have to think again.

It may be at least two years before tattoos for monitoring your diabetes are available on the market—so unfortunately, those strips and sticking of fingers and thumbs aren't going away for diabetics any time soon. But hopefully, someday in the not so distant future, nanotechnology will make the quality of life just a little bit better for diabetics and perhaps improve the disease management for other chronic diseases like heart disease and others as well. In the meantime, you can dream up what you want your "nanoink" tattoo to look like.

Summer Johnson, PhD
Column Editor, Lifeboat Foundation
Executive Managing Editor, The American Journal of Bioethics

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